It's no secret that California's community colleges, including Santa Rosa Junior College, are among the best education deals going.
Fees to attend schools in the state's 112-school system are the lowest in the United States. What's more, at least 40 percent of 2.4 million students statewide are exempted from such fees based on economic need, the result of the state's decades-long commitment to affordable post-high school education.
Yet big state spending cuts that have seen SRJC and other community colleges scale back their class offerings and services in recent years have college officials taking a fresh look at how fee waivers are granted.
On Tuesday, state community college leaders considered a new proposal to require students who receive such fee waivers to maintain at least a C average for two consecutive semesters or earn credit for at least half their coursework.
A final vote on the proposal, which would take effect in 2016, won't come until January.
"This change could affect some of our students who are struggling academically," acknowledged Kristin Shear, who is in charge of financial aid at SRJC. About 13,500 of 32,373 students enrolled at SRJC received the financial assistance, called a Board of Governors Fee Waiver, last school year.
Based on a California Community Colleges chancellor's projection that 48,479 students statewide could lose aid under the changes, Shear estimated about 750 SRJC students could lose their waivers.
She said the changes aren't meant to punish students — rather, they stem from the Student Success Act, a state law passed in 2012 meant to encourage community college students to get better grades so they can graduate or transfer to another school.
"We've always done a good job with accessability, but there hasn't always been a strong emphasis on student success," said Paige Marlatt Dorr, director of communications for the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office.
The proposed changes are meant to encourage students to focus more on academic progress. They will not apply to foster children, who are considered at a special academic disadvantage, and any student who loses eligibility will have a chance to appeal to their local college.
SRJC students interviewed Tuesday supported the changes, saying that low class attendance and drop-outs were a problem in their classes.
"If anything, it's a good incentive to get people to take class seriously," said Suzy Castro, who is starting her second year at SRJC. She said that there are always a few students who drop out of the classes she's taking.
Castro, 19, receives the waiver and said she wouldn't be able to afford college without it. Her parents don't have high school diplomas and can't help her financially, so she works more than 30 hours a week in addition to her full course load. But with an A grade average, she's not worried about losing the fee waiver.
In recent years, community colleges have faced increased financial challenges that have forced them to cut classes and reduce expenses in other ways.
It may also have caused them to reassess who should pay full price in a system where fees — $1,380 for a full course load — are already the lowest in the country and less than half the national average.
In the 2011-2012 school year, the statewide community college system actually relinquished more money in fee waivers — $577 million — than the $361 million it collected, according to data from the California Community College chancellor's office.