Of the 30 students, two had to be taken to a hospital, according to Patty Del Valle, a counselor at the college. No arrests were made.
At least 100 students turned up to protest a two-tiered system of fees due to go into effect in summer, which would significantly increase the cost of attending the college. When too many students showed up to the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees meeting, the rest were placed in an overflow room. Officials said those students tried to force their way into the main room, and that's when police took action.
Students could be seen having milk poured into their eyes to ease the burning. Among the victims was a young girl.
"Before I know it, I breathe in and it's just pepper-spray," said student Kaileigh Wade. "They didn't even warn us, they didn't say, 'Hey, if you guys don't calm down we're going to pepper-spray you,' they just did it."
A Santa Monica Police Department officer said officers from his department were on scene, but the pepper-spraying was done by campus police.
"There was a demonstration tonight at the college. The incident is being handled by the Santa Monica College Police. We (Santa Monica Police Department) did respond to assist and none of our officers were involved in any use of force incidents," said Santa Monica Police Sgt. Richard Lewis in a statement.
Pico Boulevard in front of the college was closed for about five blocks, Del Valle said.
Students were on campus protesting the proposed fee hike. The college wants to offer supplemental classes to students who can afford it.
Higher fees are never a popular subject for college students, and now Santa Monica College has devised the only plan of its kind in the country: To offer more expensive classes to students who need them, approving a fee structure of $200 per unit to create extra classes. The normal cost is $36 per unit.
Deep and continual budget cuts have forced the college to eliminate more than a thousand courses since 2008. The remaining classes are filling up, and some students are forced to wait, sometimes for years for the ones they need.
That's why SMC Transfer Center Coordinator Dan Nannini says it may actually benefit everyone involved.
"The student who is of means and wants to move from point A to point B knows that they need that class, they're going to pay that extra money to take that class," said Nannini. "The main point for the student that is not of means: That is one less person they have to compete with to get the course at the $36-a-unit fee."
Still, some students say they are barely making ends meet, and there are concerns the state will make even more cuts if the college sets this precedent.
But SMC President Dr. Chui Tsang says it's still more affordable than other educational alternatives, and there is little choice.
"We have a lot of other students who are locked out of the system, and we need to allow them an opportunity to go forward so that they don't lag behind," said Tsang. "Many of the students have an opportunity to get a seat in the college, they're the lucky ones. The unlucky ones are the ones who cannot get a seat in the system right now."
This year alone, Santa Monica College faced $10 million in funding cuts, and next year isn't looking any better. They've had to lock 230,000 students out of the system.
City News Service contributed to this report.