Now in his third year at Yuba College, a year he once hoped to spend in Chico or Davis, Robert Bond said every student he knows has struggled to get the classes they need.
"My first semester here, no math classes were open, so I couldn't get a math class," Bond, 20, lamented on the Yuba campus quad, decked in a sweat shirt and shorts on an unseasonably warm afternoon. "Basically it took me two years until I could get a math class, college-level Math 52. So I'm like way behind."
Faced with state budget cuts since the recession annual funding is now 12 percent below its 2008-09 high-water mark community colleges have pared back course offerings. Yet demand remains sky high as costs at four-year universities shoot upward and unemployed Californians seek retraining.
Community college leaders say it has become necessary to ration classroom seats like water in a drought. They plan to impose statewide rules that prioritize students working toward a degree, certificate or basic academic skills. To meet that end, students who make little progress or take classes for enrichment purposes will move to the back of the line.
The hope, says California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott, is that new students won't get locked out. State leaders want to increase the percentage of students who graduate or transfer to universities, rates that suffer when students can't register for classes.
"It was never my wish to ration attendance at community colleges, but this was forced upon us by the very severe budget cuts," Scott said. "The reality is, we just can't offer everything to everybody."
State lawmakers two years ago required the California Community Colleges to address low completion rates, and the colleges' Board of Governors this month approved a 22-point Student Success Task Force plan. The board can move ahead with some aspects of the plan this fall, while others require legislation. Lawmakers will evaluate the proposal Wednesday.
Estimates on community college completion differ. A 2007 study by Sacramento State's Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy (IHELP) found that less than 25 percent of degree-seekers completed a transfer, degree or certificate within six years. The task force said 53.6 percent of degree-seeking students ever achieve at least one of those goals, a figure it called "a cause of concern."
Besides prioritizing access for degree-minded students, some of the planned changes include designing a uniform diagnostic test across all 112 campuses, working with K-12 schools to improve college preparation, restricting fee waivers and requiring students to declare a program of study early on.
In the Sacramento region, the Los Rios Community College District has reduced its course offerings by 8.5 percent over the last three years, said Chancellor Brice Harris.
"Higher education in American has protected for a long time the idea that students ought to be able to experiment until they find out what they want to be," Harris said. "Now when you get into rationing, we want to give you some opportunity to try things, but we also want you to set a goal, complete it and move on."
When students can't get the classes they need, they may register for courses of little use to them. Some do so because they know the registration system rewards students who accumulate units.
"Rationing has gotten so bad that a lot of students are taking classes right now solely to gather units to advance in priority registration," said Scott Lay, president and CEO of the Community College League of California. "They know the system, and have no better choice. It's irrational rationing."
Many students unprepared
Despite recent fee hikes, the state's community colleges remain among the nation's most affordable and have prided themselves on offering open access. The system serves 2.5 million students, down from 2.7 million three years ago as campuses have cut back.
The proposed changes have raised questions of fairness and sparked debate about what role community colleges should play.
Besides serving degree-seeking students, the colleges help students catch up on skills they never developed in high school. More than seven in 10 students are underprepared for college-level work, according to the task force report.
While the plan includes ways to help those students, some may also be at greatest risk under the changes.
Karen Saginor, president of the Academic Senate at City College of San Francisco and a vocal critic, said it is more difficult for low-income students to navigate the higher education maze. Those who don't commit to a program of study, akin to a major, or take too many units without graduating would lose registration priority and fee waivers. At the same time, colleges have cut counselors that could help those students stay on track.
Saginor also said the plan ignores students who may benefit without a degree or certificate: "They're here to learn some specific things, then go out into the workforce and get a job. This system doesn't have them in mind and doesn't count them as successes."
Working adults and retirees who take recreational courses like yoga or tennis stand to lose out as well. The plan recommends ending state subsidies for classes that "solely serve an enrichment or recreational purpose."
"If someone is taking tennis for six semesters, sure, maybe they'll resent having go to the athletic club and pay for it," Scott said. "But I can tell you who may be irritated now are those kids who can't get into any classes."
State's graduates get older
Faculty members and their labor unions opposed the legislation that led to the task force, Senate Bill 1143 by Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge. Some fear the state eventually will fund community colleges based on how many students meet interim goals, graduate or transfer.
The task force decided against awarding dollars based on performance for now. But Gov. Jerry Brown's budget summary briefly hints at this as part of his long-term plan for higher education.
Kathy Kelley, a childhood development instructor and president of the Academic Senate at Chabot College in Hayward, said it would be unfair to penalize community colleges if they struggle to help students catch up on learning that the K-12 system didn't provide.
"I think it starts with adequate funding," she said. "One of their goals is to have every student oriented and counseled before they really start. We need enough resources and enough counselors, but what they're doing is adding more responsibilities when our resources are significantly reduced."
Absent changes directed at greater program completion, the state faces the risk of having too few college graduates in the workforce, warned Nancy Shulock, director of Sacramento State's Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy and a task force member. She cited international data showing that California's college graduates skew older, while nations like Canada and Japan have a higher concentration of young graduates.
"Hundreds of thousands of students are falling off track, and I think it's a very urgent situation if you look at the demographics," Shulock said. "It's a downward trajectory that we have to turn around, and I've been concerned about the lack of urgency."
In a gleaming new Yuba College building that stands out on the 1960s-era campus, Scott met Wednesday with community college leaders and toured classrooms designed for training nurses and public safety workers. The $20 million gem was built with bond funds approved in better economic times five years ago.
In the sun-splashed foyer, several psychiatric technician students praised their two-year program, though they said they had to wait two or three years to gain entry.
In a nearby classroom, over lunch of almond chicken, beef roulade and cream-filled éclairs crafted by culinary arts students, Scott explained the financial straits facing community colleges, as well as the new task force plan.
"We're trying to say to the public, 'We're spending your money very well because the fact that these people don't finish doesn't mean we didn't do something,' " he said. "That's not a very sellable kind of thing."