When Erica Sandoval could not get all of the classes at Cosumnes River College that she wanted, she figured out just what to do.
Sandoval quickly found openings at the Los Rios Community College District's new Elk Grove Center.
"They have more available classes here than they have at Cosumnes," Sandoval, 19, said Monday as she waited for her psychology class to begin. "I didn't know they offered all these."
Unlike the main campus, which offers a full line of subjects from auto technology to English, the focus at Elk Grove Center is on general education.
Elk Grove Center is one of five Los Rios satellite campuses designed to help students obtain credits necessary to obtain a degree or transfer to a four-year college, especially when main campuses are full.
Site work on the district's sixth and final center in Rancho Cordova under a decadelong expansion plan began this summer.
Los Rios also offers classes at former air bases McClellan and Mather, but those are focused on training workers in public safety, automotive and diesel-related fields.
Elk Grove Center has about 12,500 square feet of teaching space. By comparison, Cosumnes has about 200,000 comparable square feet of classroom, library and lab space, not counting recreational facilities.
Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, called Los Rios a model for expanding through smaller satellite centers rather than costly, full-service campuses.
"Los Rios has shown a level of discipline that can be difficult" for a community college, Lay said.
Los Rios, he said, has persevered with its core college identities American River, Sacramento City, Folsom Lake and Cosumnes River colleges.
As revenue declined during the recession, the state cut funds to community colleges by more than $805 million across the three years that ended June 30, 2012. Schools slashed course offerings. And enrollment across the state fell by 500,000, Lay said.
Passage of Proposition 30 last year raised taxes and provided more money for education, resulting in modest gains in course offerings this year, helping push enrollment higher by about 20,000 statewide.
The Los Rios district this year eked out a 1 percent enrollment jump to about 82,000. Fall enrollment at Elk Grove Center is about 1,350, said district spokesman Mitchel Benson. Of those students, 1,040 also take classes at Cosumnes, he said.
The Rancho Cordova site is slated to open in fall 2015, replacing a temporary outreach center. It will be linked to Folsom Lake College.
The first phase of Davis Center was finished in 2011 in West Village on the UC Davis campus.
It focuses on enabling students to transfer to the UC system. Davis Center and another center in West Sacramento are extensions of Sacramento City College.
The state chancellor's office has approved plans for the Phase 2 Davis Center expansion, adding more classrooms.
The 8-year-old Natomas Center, a 5,500-student arm of American River College, has more demand than space. The overflow students attend night classes in the adjacent Inderkum High School.
"Rather than having as many colleges as Los Angeles, we think it's better to reach out to the local communities with centers and then retain a limited number of colleges," said Jon Sharpe, a Los Rios deputy chancellor.
Compared to a full campus, a Los Rios center offers fewer programs and a narrower focus, typically with no vocational or occupational classes and fewer student services.
But like full campuses, they can compete for state bond funds for expansion.
Elk Grove Center operated last year in the adjacent Cosumnes Oaks High School. The new site, which cost $13.5 million, has 40 course offerings that help meet general education requirements such as math, history and English.
Sandoval, in her first day at Elk Grove, said she hasn't given up on finding classes at Cosumnes. She is also taking an African American history class at Sacramento City College.
One adjunct member of the psychology department faculty, Gia Herndon, said the centers can ease the pursuit of higher education.
"For me, the centers, and Elk Grove Center in particular, make education more accessible," said Herndon, Sandoval's instructor.
Not all students are aware that the centers exist.
Malik Pruitt, 18, ended up at Elk Grove Center through an accidental discovery. He said he initially thought the center was a room at the Cosumnes campus.
Still, the sophomore said he didn't object. He lives in Elk Grove, he said, and the center is closer, more convenient, and allows him a bit of extra sleep.
At Natomas Center, students began arriving for the first day of school Monday at 7 a.m., an hour early.
Parking at centers costs the same as on main campuses. Students pay daily or by semester.
Alexander Ravera, 19, found a way around that. He wore a backpack with his supplies and traveled via skateboard from his home about 3 miles away.
Ravera said his aim is to transfer to Kendall College, a culinary academy in Chicago. For now, he said, he's looking to build his education foundation at a community college.
"I have friends who went here, and they said it's a pretty good school," the former Inderkum High School student said. "It's a good starting place."
Call The Bee's Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card .