Community Colleges Squeezed by Enrollment Jump, Budget Cuts

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, September 25, 2009

“All right, so we’re going to start with the papers…”
You know the old saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same?” That’s pretty much what it felt like at this Sacramento City College English class. Signs of the recession are everywhere: full classes, jammed parking lots, and so on. But when it comes to college students, one thing never changes: procrastination.
Knorr: “Let’s just take an honest poll: how many people do have a draft of your paper finished?”
Two or three of the 50 students raise their hands in response to Professor Jeffrey Knorr’s question.  Then, Knorr’s co-instructor, Troy Meyers, pipes up.
Meyers: “When is it due?”
Students: “Thursday!”
Knorr: “Everybody knows the answer to that one!”
But there’s one big exception to that procrastination rule – and that’s at registration time.
Aims: “It’s really essential to enroll ahead of time. It’s just a really rushed process. And it’s busy, you know what I mean?”
19-year-old student Dwight Aims made sure to sign up for his classes the very first day he could.
Aims: “That’s what got me in. Cause they filled up quick.”
Ben: “Would you have been able to get in if you had not registered that day?”
Aims: “Probably not – probably not with the professors I did.”
He also says if you don’t show up to class on time, you’ll be stuck sitting on the floor. That was especially true on the first day of school. Jeff Knorr says well over a hundred people tried to cram into his English class – including dozens not even on the wait list.
Knorr: “It was mayhem. People were just packed in down the hall. It was crazy.”
Ben: “Did you do any teaching that day?”
Knorr: “Well, not particularly. Right at the very end, we did a little bit of teaching (laughs). For the last 10 minutes or so”
Knorr says students have pleaded with him to find a way to let them into a class.
Knorr: “I got the heartstrings tugged at constantly. You know, I can’t graduate without this course, or really need this class to meet a requirement.”
That happens every semester, he says.
Knorr: “But I have to say that this semester, there was an urgency to those stories that seemed a little bit more true. And there was an urgency in the way they were told – and I think they were told with greater frequency. I heard that from more and more students this semester. And I believe it.”
Usually, teachers try to say yes as much as they can. But in the last couple of weeks, Knorr has turned away more than a hundred students.
Knorr: “This year, we were actually instructed to not add students – because there just wasn’t the apportionment that was gonna come from the state.”
And Knorr says he sees his students acting differently: they’re in class more, afraid to miss for fear of getting dropped; and they’re putting more pressure on themselves to get good grades – so much that they lose focus.
Statewide enrollment at community colleges was already up five percent last year. This year, at the Los Rios Community College District, which includes Sac City and three other campuses, it’s up an additional 6.5 percent. The students can tell you all the reasons why.
Damien Armstrong: “It’s mostly the economy. A lot of people come to school because they can’t find a job. So they might as well come to school and try to get an education so they can get a better job.”
Toniesha McFarland: “People are still here because they don’t have the classes that they need to transfer. So they’re sticking around, taking classes just to take them until there’s openings.”
Lia Seyman: “I have a lot of friends who were planning on transferring in the spring or in the fall. And CSU is not taking any students currently. So they’re having to change all of their plans and trying to figure out how they’re gonna get their education finished.”
That last point is significant. The well-publicized fee increases and budget cuts at UC and Cal State campuses are pricing out a lot of students, and making it harder for others to transfer in. Those factors have added to the enrollment jump at community colleges -- and they’re having their own budget shortfalls. Officials at Los Rios say they’re eliminating more than 300 class sections this year and twice that many next year. Chancellor Brice Harris says the very hallmark of community colleges – open access to anyone who wants to attend – is getting harder and harder to maintain. He says students will have to plan earlier and set more realistic goals.
Harris: “They need to be prepared for only being able to take nine or six units of instruction instead of the 12 or 15 or 18 they had hoped to take. Because classes are just gonna be very full.”
That squeeze will only get worse in the spring, Harris says, when even more students who hoped to go to UCs or CSUs end up at a community college instead.