California Community College students already are struggling to get into classes, and it could be even tougher next spring and summer to get a seat if voters reject a state tax proposal.
Community college leaders outlined a grim future during a phone conference Wednesday, when Chancellor Jack Scott laid out the findings from a survey of community colleges. Enrollment is declining, classes have long waiting lists and faculty and staff have been laid off due to budget cuts.
And there could be more cuts, they warned. If voters reject Proposition 30, the college system would face a $338 million loss in January. Campuses would have to eliminate more courses and services.
The governor's tax initiative would restore some funding to community colleges and public school districts, would increase the state sales tax by a quarter cent and raise income taxes on people making more than $250,000 annually.
In the Valley's State Center Community College District, college leaders worry the crisis will stymie the region's economic recovery by forcing part-time teachers out of jobs and denying first-generation students their only shot at college.
"For many living in the Fresno area, community college is not just one option, it's the only option for higher education," district Chancellor Deborah Blue said.
State Center, whose largest campuses are Fresno City College and Reedley College, would lose an estimated $16.2 million if Prop. 30 fails. The cut represents about 12% of the district's budget.
Ed Eng, vice chancellor of finance administration, said the district would buffer the loss with cuts to courses and services, salary reductions and using cash reserves. Eng said the district has used about $10 million in reserves in the past couple years to patch holes created by state cuts.
Blue warned that up to 40% of courses could be eliminated at some campuses if Prop. 30 fails. She said the district has been aggressively reaching out to students and encouraging them to register early -- particularly first-generation college students, who may not know how to sign up for classes or apply for financial aid.
But many willing and qualified students aren't going to college, and by no fault of their own. Community colleges, battered by an $809 million cut over the past three years, have deleted course offerings and closed their doors to thousands of would-be students.
Statewide, community college enrollment has plummeted 17% to 2.4 million -- a loss of about 485,000 students -- since 2008. The drop is greater than the number of students enrolled at all California State University campuses.
"We're going to discover that we don't have the educated work force that we need," Scott said of the enrollment decline.
Of the 112 campuses, 78 responded to the survey, which was released Wednesday. The majority of colleges reported lower enrollment and fewer courses for this year compared to 2011. Most said they laid off staff to cope with budget cuts and have an average of 7,000 students on waitlists. In all, more than 470,000 students started the fall semester on a waiting list.
Campuses also are grappling with increased demand from returning veterans who are eager to use their benefits for a college education, and from CSU students who can't get classes on their own campuses and are trying to fill their course schedules at community colleges. The surge in applicants and dwindling state revenues have collided to create what college leaders are calling "a perfect storm."
Fresno City College President Tony Cantu said everyone on campus feels the strain. About 60% of the college's courses had waitlists when the semester started a few weeks ago.
"The options that students have are diminishing," he said.
Although the college was able to increase course offerings this fall -- in anticipation of big cuts in the spring -- it eliminated about 400 sections from 2010-11 to 2011-12. City College accepted about 4,000 fewer students in fall 2011 than the year before.
Enrollment at State Center Community College District has dropped almost 12% since 2008. The district has shed thousands of course sections over the past few years -- and with that, about 400 part-time faculty have lost work, said Lacy Barnes, a Reedley College instructor and senior vice president for the California Federation of Teachers.
Meanwhile, full-time faculty are grappling with larger classes. Wendell Stephenson, a philosophy instructor at Fresno City College, said his classes have about 35 or 40 students. Twenty, he said, would be an appropriate size.
The demand for classes has created more work, he said, but it's also boosted faculty morale: "We feel like we're needed."
The cheery attitude is fleeting, however. Everyone is bracing for a mid-year cut, which could put even full-time jobs on the line. Already, district managers have agreed to a 14-day furlough and have asked unions to take a 7% to 10% salary cut and give up some benefits.
"There's a lot of worrying things out there," said Stephenson. "It's hard to be optimistic sometimes."