The Bigger Story Behind Santa Monica College's Pepper-Spray Showdown

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Last night, yet another campus protest in California ended with a burst of pepper spray. Police doused as many as 30 students after a large group of demonstrators attempted to break into a board of trustees meeting at Santa Monica College. But unlike last year's somewhat similar incident at the University of California, Davis, this wasn't another chapter of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Instead, the protest was aimed at officials who are debating a new plan that would effectively allow the school to charge more for its most popular classes.

Most of the attention to this story will probably focus on law enforcement's decision to once again violently subdue students. But hopefully the policy issues that fueled this 100-student protest won't be overshadowed. These events are only the most graphic manifestation of the long-gestating dysfunction within California's system of higher education, and could also be a preview of things to come nationwide. 

As I've written previously, Santa Monica is facing a knotty problem. It has too many students, and not enough resources to teach them. State budget cuts have forced it to reduce its class offerings so severely that students are being turned away in droves as courses fill up beyond capacity. Out of frustration, some are transferring to for-profit schools.

In response, the college has proposed a plan, which the state could still potentially block, to offer to offer additional sections of its most in demand classes at a high enough price to cover their expenses. Instead of $46 a unit, they'll cost $180. Although Santa Monica's administration is trying to raise money for a scholarship fund, it boils down to this: The students who can afford to pay will get the classes they need. Those who can't will wait. 

Santa Monica, it should be noted, is already one of the least expensive two-year programs in the United States, according to the Department of Education, with current tuition at about $652 a year. The national average is about $2,500.

But these protests are about more than the sticker price. As students marched last night, many reportedly chanted, "No cuts, no fees, education should be free!" The concern is not simply that the school is attempting to institutionalize an unequal, two-track system, but rather that this is a step away from the ideal of publicly paid for education. By offering courses at cost, Santa Monica is acting essentially converting itself to a private, not-for-profit model. 

Does Santa Monica have a better option? I doubt it. California's legislators are in no mood to increase funding for any kind of services. Santa Monica's plan at least offers a way to help a select number of students get through school faster than they otherwise would. That's why some believe that if Santa Monica's plan is successful, it will likely be copied not only at California's other underfunded community colleges, but in other states as well. 

If you believe education is a public good, and that access to it should be as broad as possible, this is a disheartening development. The more states abdicate their responsibility to fund their colleges and community colleges, the more solutions like Santa Monica's we'll see, at least until schools find ways to dramatically cut their costs (And if you think that's a simple project, think again).  Should these students be angry at their administrators? Perhaps not. But they're concerned about something real and pressing. Hopefully last night's events sent a message to the government in Sacremento. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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