Education Lab

Demand high at Valley community colleges

Packed classrooms and mile-long waiting lists await thousands of community college students as they head back Monday for the fall semester.

Locally, officials say many students have learned to register at the first opportunity because of intense competition for classes. But for newcomers, or those who simply procrastinated, there could be more uncertainty than ever as community colleges wrestle with heavy demand, unsettled budgets and fewer class offerings.

"In the past, students could come in the first day of classes and get a full schedule. That doesn't happen any more," said John Cummings, vice president for admissions and records and institutional research at the State Center Community College District.

Across the state, California's community colleges are under pressure as the economy pinches the budget and also prompts more people to seek training. The 112-college system absorbed a $520 million budget cut in 2009-10.

The financial outlook for community colleges is better this year, with the potential of more than $120 million from the state for enrollment growth. But state officials haven't agreed to a final budget and methods for dealing with a $19 billion deficit.

Across the region, some campuses have saved money by cutting back on part-time instructors, freezing positions or offering retirement incentives to longtime faculty.

Locally, student demand is strong. At State Center -- which operates Fresno City College, Reedley College and several campus centers -- enrollment is down less than 1% from last fall as of Wednesday morning.

All campuses made some cuts to class schedules. The reduction at City College, the district's biggest campus, was close to 3%, officials said.

The district also has more than 24,000 names on class waiting lists; students can sign up on more than one list. Typically, at the beginning of a term, the district has between 17,000 and 19,000 names on its lists, Cummings said.

At City College this week, several students said they grabbed plum schedules -- and avoided waiting lists -- by signing up as soon as registration windows opened weeks ago.

Beatriz Maravilla, 22, of Fresno said she found "the classes that I wanted were pretty much open."

Not as lucky was Casandra Perez, 20, of Mendota, who is returning to school after a year's absence. Perez is on four waiting lists after failing to pin down a schedule over the past few weeks.

She said she's optimistic space will open up, even though there are 20 names ahead of her on one list.

City College President Cynthia Azari said students should be flexible, patient and present for class. With so much competition for seats, she said, "if you are enrolled and you don't show up, you may be dropped."

In Visalia, enrollment is climbing at the College of the Sequoias. Bill Scroggins, superintendent/president at COS, said the numbers are up about 6% compared with the same time last fall.

But, with students enrolling earlier this fall, Scroggins expects the numbers to hit fall 2009 levels -- or about 13,000 students. The healthy enrollment continues despite a 3.5% cut in the schedule.

Scroggins said classes at premium times filled up fast. For example, all but one section of an American history class is full, he said. The only two seats available are in a Saturday class.

COS also has about 6,000 names on class waiting lists -- "an all-time high for us," he said.

Enrollment in the West Hills Community College District, based in Coalinga, is about 5,000 -- roughly the same as last year, said Chancellor Frank Gornick. The class schedule is about the same and waiting lists are relatively small.

Though finding a class can be rough on some campuses, one bright spot for students is price. While California State University and University of California students will pay more this year, state officials haven't touched the $26 per-unit fee at community colleges. The Legislative Analyst's Office recommended a $40 per-unit fee.

Scott Lay, president and chief executive officer of the Community College League of California in Sacramento, thinks a change is unlikely. But with the state budget still in progress, "anything is possible," he added.