More than our public universities, more than our private colleges, the backbone of higher education in California is our community colleges.

The 112 campuses and 71 off-site educational centers in our state serve an astounding 2.6 million students. Nationwide, just as much as the California State University and University of California campuses, this system has been the envy of every other state. What is more amazing and what many Californians probably don't know -- it's our birthright, after all -- is that as superb as the community colleges are, the tuition there is also the lowest in the nation at about $1,380 a year.

Even so, fully 40 percent of the students attending community colleges have their fees waived. It's not just the poorest students who get this break -- a student from a family of four earning up to $90,000 annually can qualify for the fee waiver.

If this is generous of our state, it's also indicative of our commitment to students as they prepare for careers. A state without a highly educated workforce is not one prepared for the economic realities of the 21st century.

But the budget crisis that has prompted sharp tuition increases at our public universities is hitting hard at the community colleges as well. Class offerings have been greatly reduced. Going against the California Master Plan for Higher Education, some eligible students are being turned away.


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That's why we support a proposal to require students who get those fee waivers to maintain at least a C grade point-average and to be taking at least half of the courses for which they are enrolled for full credit.

It's Economics 101 to understand that when the revenues for sustainability aren't there, fees must be raised. But that same economics course will teach that a price guarantee doesn't ensure that more money will stream into the enterprise. If those students drop out rather than pay the new price, what appeared to be a practical step could backfire.

Still, the waivers are a kind of scholarship, and scholarship students in four-year colleges are expected to maintain a minimum grade-point average.

In the interest of fiscal stability for our community colleges, Californians should support the proposal while insisting that it be monitored so that its effect is not to kick out of school the students who most need education.

Their failure to be educated would hurt not just them, but all of us. Counseling for those on the brink must be provided; administrators must seek to keep students, not lose them.

Even now, only 53 percent of community college students get a degree. For Latino and African-American students, the rates are 43 percent and 42 percent, respectively. We can't afford to push those numbers lower.