Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

Bee file, 2013. Eduardo Ramos has his photo ID picture taken on the first day of classes at Elk Grove Center, a new satellite campus of Los Rios Community College District. Elk Grove is one of five neighborhood centers functioning under the Los Rios umbrella.

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Thousands of students vie for class space at Sacramento community colleges

Published: Friday, Sep. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am

Enough students found themselves on class waiting lists at Sacramento-area community colleges on the first day of fall semester to fill Candlestick Park, the football stadium where the 49ers play.

More than 65,000 students were on waiting lists for classes when school resumed late last month, even as several area colleges drew on increased state revenue to add sections for popular courses, new state figures show.

At the Los Rios Community College District, more than 53,000 students landed on the lists, according to a survey from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office released Wednesday. That included 22,000 at American River College, more than any other community college in the state. Still, this year’s numbers marked a slight improvement districtwide over an even larger waitlist in 2012, officials said.

The waiting lists are a legacy of deep state funding cuts for community colleges, reductions that topped $805 million statewide from 2009 to 2012. Community college enrollment fell 500,000 during that period. Campuses around the state slashed course offerings.

At the Los Rios district, enrollment dropped by about 15 percent from 2008-09 to 2012-13, to 110,000 students. At the Sierra College district, enrollment fell by about 20 percent over that period, to 24,000.

This school year, the picture is improving statewide. But in some districts, including in the Sacramento region, demand for classes still exceeds supply.

Ivania Areas, a freshman at the Natomas Center, an extension of American River, said the key to getting a class is to not give up.

Areas, 18, said Thursday she was on a waiting list for an English class when the semester started. But she and others were able to get their seats when students already accepted were no-shows. On Day 2 of the class, she said, the scenario was repeated. More students on waiting lists showed up. They were rewarded with seats when other enrolled students failed to show.

“I think the best thing to do is to show up for the first day and hope for the best,” she said. “Space is limited, and everybody is trying to take general ed (courses).”

At American River College, the most popular classes are pre-med and pre-nursing courses such as chemistry and biology, said spokesman Scott Crow. Math and English classes historically are in high demand, he said, along with courses in history, humanities and art, all designed to lay the groundwork for transfers to four-year colleges.

Community college districts benefited from Proposition 30, last year’s voter-approved ballot measure that increased income taxes on high earners and raised sales taxes. Bolstered by millions in additional state funding, college districts made modest gains in course offerings this year, helping push enrollment higher.

But at every college in the Los Rios and Sierra College districts, at least 70 percent of classes were full on the first day of the semester, compared with about 56 percent of classes statewide.

Sue Lorimer, vice chancellor of education and technology at Los Rios, said that in the opening days of school, “we have a lot of churn” as more students get into their chosen classes. In the year-to-year comparison, she said, the volume of people on waiting lists in the district declined about 5 percent from 2012.

The focus on course offerings is changing too, she said, as well as the nature of enrollment. The region’s colleges now emphasize sections that help students complete their degree programs, graduate more quickly and transfer to four-year colleges, she said. That means more basics such as math and English in lieu of some electives or physical education classes, she said.

Lorimer said Los Rios is seeing a decline in students ages 25 to 45, as gains in the economy allow many to return to work. Enrollment of students older than 50 also has declined as academic resources are shifted from lifelong learners to students with specific goals such as job training or transfer to a four-year campus.

Continued strong demand comes from students fresh out of high school, ages 17 to 20, looking for the career benefits of continuing their education – absent the spiraling costs of four-year colleges.

Sierra College plans to grow its enrollment by 5 percent and its course offerings by 8 percent this fall compared with last year. American River College and Cosumnes River College will post more modest gains. Folsom Lake College and Sacramento City College will buck the trend, decreasing enrollment and course offerings, the statewide survey showed.

All local schools remain crowded.

At American River College, 85 percent of classes were full on the first day of class. At Sierra College, 77 percent of classes were full and 12,000 students were on waitlists.

This is the first year that the Sierra College District used a waitlist, said Sue Michaels, district information officer.

“The real advantage of the list is that it provides instructors a fair way to add students and it provides students a fair path to get into the class,” Michaels said. “In past years it has been heartbreaking watching students sitting in the hall trying to add classes.”

“We were a little nervous going in,” Michaels said. “We’re happy now. We’re feeling very good. And we’re adding (course) sections to spring and summer.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card.

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