The New York Times
By: Tamar Lewin
June 23, 2010
WALNUT, Calif. -- When Giovanny Villalta tried to register for winter-term classes at Mount San Antonio College here, he hit the wall.
"I was assigned a late registration slot, and by the time I was allowed to register, everything was full," Mr. Villalta said. "Biology, full. Anatomy, full. Physics, full. Psychology, full. History of Asia, full. Any history class that would count toward transferring to a four-year U.C. campus, full."
So Mr. Villalta, who had been a high school athlete, ended up taking track -- and nothing else.
"It was pretty frustrating," he said. "You feel like you're wasting time, and your life's just going by."
In this economy, community colleges are widely seen as the solution to many problems. Displaced workers are registering in droves to earn credentials that might get them back in the game. Strapped parents, daunted by the cost of four-year universities, are encouraging their children to spend two years at the local community college.
President Obama has announced an American Graduation Initiative to produce five million more community college graduates by 2020. There is even a popular television comedy, "Community," set at a two-year college.
"We're more visible now than we ever have been," said George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges.
But for students and professors at overstretched colleges, these are hardly the best of times. With state financing slashed almost everywhere, many institutions have cut so deeply into their course offerings and their faculty rosters that they cannot begin to handle the influx of students.
In some parts of the country, the budget stresses are so serious that the whole concept of community colleges as open-access institutions -- where anyone, with any educational background, can enroll at any point in life -- is becoming more an aspiration than a reality.
"We have a commitment to educate the top 100 percent of Americans, but this is a tough time," said Martha J. Kanter, under secretary of the federal Department of Education and a former community college president. "Students aren't getting as many classes as they want, so it's going to take them longer to get through."
On the sunny, hilly campus of Mount SAC (as everyone calls it) east of Los Angeles, Ashley Diaz is one of many dispirited students. In each of her three terms at the college, she has been able to get into only one academic class and one dance class, which she has taken three times.
"I came in with some Advanced Placement credits, so I don't need that many courses before I can transfer to a four-year university," Ms. Diaz said. "I thought I'd be in and out in a year and a half, maybe two. But it's like working my way through quicksand."
Many students feel stalled, whether they plan to continue at a four-year university or become a firefighter, a nurse or a welder.
Crystal Boddie, a 28-year-old child care worker, said she was just one course away from certification as a preschool teacher, which would raise her pay by about $6 an hour. But when she went to register for that class this spring, it was not offered.
The college has cut 800 course sections -- more than 10 percent of its classes -- over the last year, even as the number of people attending preregistration orientation sessions has grown about 10 percent.
"We want to create the illusion that we're still open access," said Silver Calzada, chairman of counseling at the college. "But the truth is that with all the classes that have been cut, unless you get a registration slot on the first or second day, you're not going to get into the classes you need. Students see our banners saying 'Dream It. Be It.' And they feel like they've been duped."
Some professors now stretch their class sizes, taking in as many students as the room will hold. When dozens of extra students showed up for a Thursday evening horticulture class with 35 registered members, for example, the professor, Dave Lannom, brought in 24 chairs from a nearby classroom and said anyone who could find a chair could stay.
"This is a terrible situation," Professor Lannom said. "Students get discouraged and will quit when turned away."
Because of budget cuts, California community colleges, the largest higher education system in the country, enrolled 21,000 fewer students in the 2009-10 academic year than the previous year. Some districts reported turning away about half of the new students who tried to enroll for the 2009-10 academic year, said Jack Scott, the chancellor of California's community colleges.
"Unfortunately, we will never be able to accurately account for all of the students who had to either put their college dreams on hold or abandon them altogether because they couldn't get the classes or training they needed," Mr. Scott said.
Open access has passed its limits elsewhere, too. For the first time, the City University of New York and its six community colleges, whose enrollment grew by 43 percent over the last decade, started waiting lists for admission this fall.
"We capped our enrollment for the fall at 10,804, the same level as last year," said Eduardo J. Marti, president of Queensborough Community College. "That means there will be about 200 to 500 students we might not be able to bring in."
At Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., where enrollment grew by a third over the last two years, the president, Gary M. Green, said he had no room for hundreds of students who wanted to register.
"I've been in community colleges since 1976, and the door has always been open," he said. "But now, we just don't have the capacity."
Even in flush times, completion rates at community colleges are shockingly low, in part because so many students hold jobs and attend classes only part time. Over all, only about a quarter of community college students complete their degree in six years, said Ms. Kanter, the education under secretary. Then, too, most need some remedial courses before they can begin college-level work, further lengthening their course of study. And at Mount SAC and many other community colleges, remedial math and English classes fill up rapidly.
Recently, foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina have been pouring money into community colleges to increase completion rates, in part by improving remedial education.
Almost everywhere, anatomy and physiology classes, and others required for students of health professions, fill up almost instantly. And admission to health-related programs can take years.
Mount SAC, for example, has 986 students on the waiting list for its nursing program, which was cut by a third because of reduced financing. The radiologic technology program, which accepts 38 students a year, has a waiting list of 300.
Giovanni Davalos, an aspiring X-ray technician, said he had expected to spend three years on the waiting list. But his first hurdle was getting into the remedial classes he needed.
This spring, Mr. Davalos took a counseling department class, College Success Strategies. He said he did not necessarily want to take it, but students in that class, which teaches how to plot a sequence of courses leading to a degree, are guaranteed a seat in a remedial English class.
"All together," he said, "it might take me seven years."