Sunday, January 25, 2015

Online students dispute extra fees they paid

June 6, 2011 |

By Nanette Asimov

Hundreds of California community college students who pay extra fees to access online course content may be owed a refund for inappropriate charges if they can’t download the material for future reference.

The problem came to light after a Foothill Community College student protested to administrators at the Los Altos campus that the $78 fee he had to pay a publishing company to join an online math class — on top of his $85 registration fee — was an unfair double charge.

If state regulators decide such fees are improper, the result could have far-reaching consequences for colleges that are increasingly turning to online classes as a cheaper alternative in an era of unprecedented budget cuts.

Though it is unclear how many colleges require students to pay extra fees to publishers of online courses, such companies say they sell curriculum to most of California’s 112 community colleges.

Foothill College administrators defend the fee, calling it a legitimate charge for instructional materials. But students say the fee is more like a toll to participate in the class, and they get nothing tangible in return.

“Why can’t I download the site (content) onto my computer and keep it there forever for my personal use?” asked student Fred Rassaii, who filed a grievance. The college rejected his complaint.

But state law suggests that Rassaii is right.

Personal property

Community colleges cannot charge a fee for instructional materials unless students get “tangible personal property” in return, said Steve Bruckman, general counsel for the community college system. For electronic data, students need to be able to download and store it, he said.

But most publishers don’t let students download e-books, even if they charge for the material. This includes Pearson, a publisher that sells online courses to Foothill and at least 75 percent of California community colleges, said Jason Jordan, a senior vice president with the company.

In fact, students’ access to those materials expires after a certain date.

“That alone creates a problem in terms of it being a valid fee,” said Bruckman, whose job is to make sure that community colleges comply with state law.

The question of how campuses deliver and charge for courses taught over the Internet is huge in the booming world of online education — especially in California, which has the nation’s largest community college system. Not all online classes require an extra fee. Many instructors develop their own courses or use free, “open-source” material. Anything else is unfair, some administrators believe.

“When you use the publisher’s content, you’re charging for it. (Students) have already paid tuition, then they’re paying additional tuition,” said Cynthia Dewar, head of educational technology at City College of San Francisco.

But many colleges let instructors use a publisher’s site as their virtual classroom. Some even send students to those sites just to do homework — for a fee — though their classes aren’t online.

Unexpected fee

At 53, Rassaii likes the flexibility of online courses as he studies at Foothill College to become a radiation therapist. He signed up in April for Math 105, an online intermediate algebra class, and paid his state-mandated $85 registration fee. But days before the class was to start, he was surprised to receive an e-mail saying students had to register with Pearson’s “Course Compass” for $78.

Rassaii learned the class would consist of lectures, quizzes, homework and an e-textbook prepackaged by Pearson, perhaps the largest publisher in the world. Students could use an online chatroom, and a Foothill instructor would answer questions online and in person.

Kimberlee Messina, Foothill’s vice president of instruction, said the Pearson fee was for instructional materials, not to access the class, a practice prohibited by state law.

But if students chose not to pay the $78, could they still take the class? “The short answer is yes,” Messina said, because they could take the tests in class and speak with the teacher. But students said tests and office hours are not enough.

“We would not have complete access to the course,” said student Samantha Louie, who called it a “waste of my financial aid that I had to pay twice.”

Without paying, “I would not have been able to even participate in the class,” said student Jenna Maiorino. She said it was like buying a book, though, so she didn’t mind.

Student ownership

But the state apparently does mind.

To charge such fees, schools have to provide something “owned or primarily controlled by the student,” says the state’s college fee handbook.

Pearson, for example, doesn’t let students download and keep the material, said Jordan, the company executive. But he said students could buy a real textbook, which comes with an access code for an online course.

Even that might not meet the legal standard, however, because many online courses, including Math 105, don’t actually require a textbook. So buying one just for its access code would be like paying extra just to access to the class.

Rassaii said, “purchasing a textbook cannot be a pre-condition to receive a course, instruction, lectures and other course-related services.”

So colleges may be on the hook to refund the fees, Bruckman said. “We’d have to look at what’s going on here.”

— Reach Nanette Asimov at



San Francisco Chronicle

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .


    Bridges of Yolo County: Wear, tear … repair?

    By Elizabeth Case | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Four days of unusual, adventuresome music

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Red Cross honors community heroes

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Rockets kill 30 in Ukrainian city as rebels launch offensive

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Abe ‘speechless’ after video claims IS hostage dead

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    GOP presses state bills limiting gay rights before ruling

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Abortion opponents express renewed hope at California rally

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Spanish police arrest 4 suspected members of a jihadi cell

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Fake schools draw federal scrutiny

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A3 | Gallery

    Winter produce available at Sutter market

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

    Sip wines at St. James’ annual tasting

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

    Donations to be distributed during homeless count

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A4

    Speaker will share computer security tips

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Logos Books celebrates 5 years, offers language groups

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Australian olive oil company opens U.S. headquarters in Woodland

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

    Explore at the YOLO Outdoor Expo

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Pedal around Davis on weekly bike ride

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Yolo animal shelter seeking rawhide donations

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A5

    Woodland Healthcare employees take Great Kindness Challenge

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A5

    At the Pond: Nest boxes give birds new homes

    By Jean Jackman | From Page: A6 | Gallery

    California ranks worst in nation for guidance counselors

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A7

    Davis, Woodland are saving water

    By Elizabeth Case | From Page: A12

    Words and Music Festival events

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A12



    Caring for the aging mouth

    By Samer Alassaad | From Page: A8

    Family isn’t keen on relationship

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: A8

    We have the right to choose

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

    We don’t have to suffer

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

    City helped immensely

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A10

    Rick McKee cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: A10

    Big utilities’ nightmare begins to play out

    By Tom Elias | From Page: A10

    Mayor’s Corner: Let’s renew Davis together

    By Dan Wolk | From Page: A10

    When measles spreads from Disneyland, it’s a small world after all

    By New York Times News Service | From Page: A11

    From innovation parks to innovative buildings and planning

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A11



    Aggies get top 2015 gymnastics score, but fall short

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Loud crowd sees DHS boys win

    By Spencer Ault | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Lady Devils hold off Pacers, stay perfect in league

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

    Wildcats’ inaugural kids development league exceeds expectations

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    UCD men take two tennis matches

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B8

    Watney in ninth at Humana Challenge

    By Staff and wire reports | From Page: B8







    Davis man focusing on cannabidiol business

    By Will Bellamy | From Page: A9

    Marrone Bio’s Regalia approved for new uses in Canada

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A9

    UCD grad makes insurance ‘hot 100′ list

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9

    Yolo County real estate sales

    By Zoe Juanitas | From Page: A9



    Thomas George Byrne

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4



    Comics: Sunday, January 25, 2015

    By Creator | From Page: B8