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.
“I’ll just have to wait to find out if they are the right ones. I don’t know,” he said before laughing.
At MiraCosta College in Encinitas, John Burrows sat on the sidewalk, waiting for a friend during a two-hour break between classes. Burrows was your typical North County hip surf punk: messy hair, tight jeans, designer surf tee.
Long breaks between classes were something new for Burrows. In his six semesters at MiraCosta — having received his two-year degree in automotive technology and now seeking his associate degree — the 22-year-old graduate of Torrey Pines High had never seen so many people on campus.
Burrows said he was shocked to find out when he signed up for classes that every one he wanted was full. The reason so many classes had reached capacity: enrollment at the college’s three campuses had risen this year by nearly 14 percent, increasing from 12,000 students to 13,618.
On the first day of classes, unaware of the increase in students, Burrows did what he’d done in the past: he went to the classes he wanted, expecting some students who’d signed up to drop. When he arrived at the first one, he saw a line at the door of 20 people who were also hoping to crash the course. Burrows said he’d never seen more than 5 in the past.
That first week he went to ten classes hoping to find an open seat. “I just kept going to all these other classes, just trying to get in,” he said. Of the ten he wanted, he enrolled in only three. “Now that it’s harder to crash,” he said, “next semester I’m going to register early.”
Back at City College, 40-year-old Charlene Jones ate Cheez-Its from a small Baggie as she read at a table in Curran Plaza, outside the doors to the Academic Success Center, which houses the Tutorial Center for students with learning disabilities. Jones, a shy woman whose long black hair was streaked with strands of contrasting gray, had attended City College for more than three years. Family obligations and a learning disability prevented her from taking more than one class each semester.
Jones was working part-time in the Tutorial Center, helping others with learning disabilities. She said the center had also been affected by the state’s economic problems. Last year she worked a 20-hour week, but since August, when the fall semester began, her hours had been reduced to 14.
“There’s a lot of frustration among students with learning disabilities,” she said. “Now, the Tutorial Center closes two hours earlier on Fridays. So last Friday as we were closing, students were outraged. The programs needed most are the ones they are cutting.” Monday through Thursday, the center closed one hour earlier.
The increase in class size from 30 students to 45 was also a concern for Jones and for many other San Diego County community college students. “Part of learning a language is interacting,” said Jones, who was studying sign language. “Now the classroom is very crowded.” Because of the class size, Jones visited her professor during office hours to ask any questions she might have.
Spring semester classes begin on January 25. Contacted last week, Jones said that councilors warned students to register for classes as soon as their assigned registration date arrived. She did, and she got into the sign language 3 class she wanted. One week later, the class was full. The Tutorial Center’s hours will remain the same in the coming semester. Jones said that last fall, because of the cutbacks, students sometimes had to wait 30 minutes to see a tutor. Now there’s talk that next fall the center may close on Fridays. There’s also talk on campus, she said, that the summer school session may not be held.
While California’s students adjust to the cutbacks in spending, another perspective suggests how much more California could lose. Reynaldo Lacaba was in his mid-30s, a slender man dressed in blue scrubs. He was in his second semester last fall, studying nursing, and after he got his bachelor’s degree, he planned to study for a master’s in nurse anesthesia. More than a decade ago, he’d gotten a degree in anthropology at a college in Pennsylvania.
“I know a lot of students are complaining about the spike in tuition,” he said, “but I grew up on the East Coast, where they don’t have this kind of liberal policy when it comes to education. Here in California, it’s heavily subsidized. Education in other states is much, much more expensive than it is here. Students really need to put the increase in tuition in context to what other students are paying in other states. They would be shocked. Students really have it good here. They just don’t know it.”