On a warm September afternoon last fall, Scott Freeman sat at an outdoor table near the art department at San Diego City College. Dressed in jeans and a black-and-gray-striped bowling shirt that covered his noticeable belly, Freeman straddled the bench as he waited for his general math class. His frayed blue-gray backpack, atop the table, was stuffed with textbooks.
Freeman was 46 years old, and it was his first semester as a full-time student. In the past, he’d attended classes at City College part-time, back when he worked as a graphic designer and later when he worked in real estate. But that was before the economy plummeted and Freeman found himself unemployed. It was then that Freeman’s depression struck. Friends suggested he go back to school for the electromagnetic engineering degree he had talked about, and that’s what he decided to do.
“Things were kind of tough for me before I started,” he said in a soft, subdued voice. “I was basically just struggling along.”
Being unemployed “kind of hits you in the later stages of life. And then you realize, okay, what have I really accomplished, and is it in line with what I thought I would accomplish? So you try and make it all work and be a part of working society.”
But students in California’s community colleges, whether teenagers just out of high school or middle-aged workers who’ve been laid off, are facing a new austerity. Classes are crowded and tuition is up. Although Freeman registered for classes a month early, he was put on a waiting list for three of the four he wanted, all of which were general education credits required for a two-year degree.
“I’ve noticed that the classes are fuller than in times past,” said Freeman. “Now I’ve seen a lot of people get denied and have to leave the class because classes were full. Look around, there’s a lot more people going back to school, but because of the budget cuts it’s hard, because the teachers have to teach more students. It’s hard to get one-on-one time with teachers because they’re so busy.”
Freeman’s depression allowed him to enroll in the college’s Disability Support Program, which provides tutors, staff, and special education courses for disabled students, but he had found, to his frustration and disappointment, that cuts had been made to the program. Since 2007, funding has been cut by 40 percent. “It’s kind of scary being a disabled student,” he said. “I’d like those programs to be available to me when I need them and for one or two years from now.”
Freeman worried about where future cuts might be made. He was especially nervous about the board of governors waiver he received this year. The waiver exempts tuition for low-income students and was the sole reason he was able to attend classes full-time. “Thank God for that program,” he said. “Of course, if the State of California runs out of money, that could go too.”
According to Richard Dittbenner, San Diego Community College District spokesperson, enrollment throughout the district has increased by 6 percent since 2007, rising from 41,454 students to 44,120. The district comprises City, Mesa, and Miramar colleges. While the number of students increased, the district has cut 1200 classes during the past two years, including the elimination of intersession, the period between the fall and spring semesters when four-week classes are held. The district has also defunded 217 full-time positions and not rehired 214 part-time professors. Last fall, more than 10,000 applicants were turned away because classes were full — 2000 more than the previous semester.
Across town at Grossmont College, at the northwestern corner of El Cajon, 19-year-old Veronica Yamada, in tight jeans and a black T-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow-colored unicorn, sat on the grass listening to her iPod. Yamada was in her third semester at Grossmont, and she said she’d seen many changes.
“Class size is a lot bigger this semester,” said Yamada, who graduated from Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley. “There’s, like, 15 people waiting outside the door for an open seat during my astronomy class. They just stand there and take notes.”
Class size wasn’t Yamada’s only complaint; the increase in tuition was another. This year, tuition in the state’s community colleges went from $20 per credit hour to $26, adding $18 to the cost of each class. And despite the spike, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District had cut $8 million from its budget in the past two years, resulting in fewer classes and fewer employees, including tutors and lab technicians. Meanwhile, at the district’s two colleges — Grossmont and Cuyamaca — enrollment was up. Two years ago, 27,000 students signed up for classes. This year that number increased to 29,600, and that’s not counting the 6000 people who were placed on a waiting list before the fall semester began.
Those who were able to register, such as Yamada, then had to pay the increase in tuition. “I don’t have a lot of money, so I had to wait to register until I found the money, and they almost dropped all of my classes,” she said. Now she worries how she will afford tuition next semester.
On the other side of campus, 18-year-old Jamey Laird, a batboy for the San Diego Padres, sat on a bench engaged with his cell phone. Laird sported spiky blond hair, black-framed sunglasses, khaki shorts, and a white button-down shirt. He was in his first semester at Grossmont. Last year, he decided to transfer from San Diego State University, where tuition had also gone up. After receiving his two-year degree, he planned to transfer back to SDSU to get his bachelor’s degree.
While Laird was pleased with the cost of tuition, registration was not without frustration. Before registering, Laird went to the administration office to speak to a counselor about which classes to take. When he arrived, no one was there, and in the next few days no one from the college contacted him. So he signed up for classes he thought he might need.