Valley community college districts keep growing

Two of the area’s largest community college districts are bucking the statewide projection of an enrollment decline this year.

Both the State Center Community College District in Fresno and College of the Sequoias in Visalia are expected to post roughly 8% gains despite reduced class schedules. Officials say more students are packing into fewer classes.

Overall, enrollment in California Community Colleges is projected to drop nearly 1%, or 21,000 students, in 2009-10 following five years of growth.

State officials in the 112-college system blame a $520 million budget cut for the sinking numbers. Enrollments are projected to drop in more than half of the 72 districts.

“Our enrollment is not dropping due to a lack of demand,” Chancellor Jack Scott said in a statement. “As demonstrated by last year’s record high enrollment of nearly 3 million students, our colleges are more popular than ever.”

That is true at both COS and State Center, where enrollment is up despite class reductions and other cuts.

As students flooded in, many instructors expanded class sizes, officials said. Students also grabbed nearly every available seat — even those in traditionally less popular classes such as advanced math.

At State Center, which includes Fresno City College and Reedley College, students also were willing to commute to more far-flung campuses, which often still had seats available.

“There’s tremendous demand,” said John Cummings, the district’s vice president for admissions and records and institutional research. The district set a record for enrollment last fall with nearly 40,000 students.

Duncan Graham, vice president of academic services at COS, said classrooms are so crowded that about 5,000 students on waiting lists couldn’t enroll in a spring class they wanted. Enrollment is about 13,500 students this semester.

Both Cummings and Graham said the state is paying for just more than 80% of their students — leaving the districts to pick up the rest. Both doubted whether that trend could continue.

At West Hills, which operates campuses in Coalinga and Lemoore, more dramatic class reductions have curbed enrollment by about 8%. The district cut roughly one-third of its class sections this spring.

Still, class sizes have increased and students are taking more units, according to Chancellor Frank Gornick.

“There is more demand than we can handle,” he said.