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Online students dispute extra fees they paid

By
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 nasimov@sfchronicle.com

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