Best friends Gaby Jimenez and Araseli Bautista banter back and forth like sisters as they wait for class on a breezy Tuesday morning. They talk about meeting back in middle school, spending teenhood together at Sunnyside High, taking a year off after graduation, and dreaming about careers in the health care field.
Now as Fresno City College students, the 20-year-olds have another thing in common: a wasteful first semester last school year is threatening to delay their plans. Both say they're now saddled with jobs to help pay for their associate's degrees, which they say will take at least a year longer than the standard two-year track to achieve.
"You're stuck with whatever classes you do get into. That's why the first semester is completely worthless," Jimenez said.
Both were assigned late registration dates last summer and only found open seats in two classes -- each worth only two credits -- among a blur of jam-packed general education courses. "Something that could have taken two years is taking three," just to get general education classes, Jimenez said.
The narrative is a familiar one. And according to a statewide report released this week, a majority of community college students across California are facing the same fate. Students are taking more credits than typically required to earn a degree -- and taking at least twice as long to graduate, the report shows. It's become a financial headache for both students and colleges, a cause for concern, administrators and researchers say.
The report from The Campaign for College Opportunity education nonprofit reveals it takes a median of 4.1 years for the state's community college students to earn what's supposed to be a two-year program diploma. The California Community Colleges chancellor's office has called the study's methods into question and says the report leaves out results for nearly 16,000 2012-13 graduates.
Even so, Fresno City's data confirms it takes several extra years to get a degree.
Students who received an associate's diploma in the 2011-12 school year needed an average of 10.6 semesters -- or more than five years -- to cross the finish line. The college's data shows only 18% get a degree within three years, nearly 10 percentage points behind the state average.
"It is a call to action," said Fresno City College President Tony Cantu, who said colleges and lawmakers are taking note.
Legislators passed a law in 2012 that aims to correct problems many two-year colleges face: a dearth of academic counselors, bottlenecks in popular courses and students signing up for classes they don't need to graduate. Fresno City is getting an extra $1.3 million this upcoming school year to spend on these initiatives, Cantu said.
But years of deep cuts to education have taken their toll.
Fresno City slogged through tough budget years by slashing course offerings. In 2010, the college shaved 10% of its class schedule, Cantu said. Many of those courses have been added back, but the cuts created a squeeze on popular classes and left many students without a full course load and delayed graduation.
If students need to take remedial courses, that, too, can stack on more time. Cantu said the ratio of students to counselors is also a concern. The college plans to hire two or three more next school year to help bring down the current ratio of 1,500 students to one, he said. About 21,840 students enrolled at Fresno City last fall.
Those problems are only compounded by other systemic issues.
"The college-going rate overall in the Valley is low compared to the statewide average, graduation rates from K-12 are lower, there are a lot of factors that play into why a student is taking longer," Cantu said.
Shortening the time-to-degree timeline could have noticeable effects on the pocketbooks of both students and colleges, say officials at The Campaign for College Opportunity.
Early Tuesday morning, a line of teens and older students snaked down the steps outside Fresno City's Student Services building. Many staked out their spot before 8 a.m. to get a chance to speak with financial aid officers and academic counselors.
Faviola Hernandez, 18, waited in line to talk with a scholarship adviser. The Central High West Campus graduate said she's ready to begin a new educational chapter, a venture she hopes grants and scholarships will help fund. Her parents will chip in, but she said landing a part-time job to help cover living expenses and other costs will be necessary.
For students relying on a blend of scholarships and their own paychecks, graduating on time is all the more important. According to the report, Pell Grant recipients and other low-income students take about one semester longer to graduate than their peers.
Ditching the side job to stay focused on school and graduate within two years could actually be more cost-effective over the long term, said Audrey Dow, community affairs director for the The Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based coalition focused on improving access and efficiency in higher education.
"If you are at a community college for six years versus two years, that's four additional years you're paying fees," she said. "You're having book expenses, you're having rent expenses, all before you're starting a career."
Overall, the cost to colleges could also come down. The report shows the average community college student earned about 78 credits by graduation -- but attempted an average of 89 credits. Most two-year programs require about 60 credits.
If the amount of extra credits students take was reduced by just 1%, colleges could save about $21 million in one year, the report shows. Those dollars could be freed up for other students and programs.
This is particularly important as colleges continue recovering from recession-era budget slicing, Dow said.
"I don't think any of the institutions would say they're overwhelmed with resources," she said. "They aren't back where they need to be."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.