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Community college classes tougher to get into

By
March 28, 2011 |

By Nanette Asimov

Thinking of taking math, science or English at a California community college next fall? You may want to try Florida instead. Or Tennessee.

Anywhere but California.

Students in this state are almost twice as likely as those in other states to be shut out of community college courses they need, says a national survey of 1,434 undergrads ages 18 to 59 to be released today.

Classes were so packed last fall that 47 percent of the 260 California community college students surveyed said they couldn’t enroll in one or more of those they needed, according to the Pearson Foundation study.

By contrast, 28 percent of community college students outside of California had the same problem.

“California has unusually low tuition, and the state’s built on easy access” to college, said Seth Reichlin, senior vice president of market research for Pearson Education, a curriculum publisher.

“The front door’s open, but the classroom door’s closed.”

It’s nothing that Jack Scott, chancellor of the community college system, isn’t painfully aware of.

“Many, many students come to us and can’t find the classes they need,” Scott told the Assembly’s budget subcommittee last month, estimating that 140,000 students were turned away last year. “We’re as popular as we’ve ever been, so it’s the best of times, and the worst of times.”

With 2.7 million students, California’s community college system is still the nation’s largest.

Here’s what the new survey says about them, compared with students in other states.

The vast majority in California, 90 percent, are returning students, rather than first-time freshmen. In other states, 85 percent are returning students.

California students “have high ambitions,” says the survey, because 75 percent plan to transfer to four-year schools. Just 53 percent of students elsewhere say the same.

Yet fewer California students attend full time: 37 percent to 46 percent. That may be because in-state students report having more financial pressures than those in other states — even dropping courses because of it.

In California, 20 percent of students dropped at least one course last semester, compared with 14 percent elsewhere. Regardless of where they went to school, about 60 percent of students said they quit because of the professor.

But California students were more likely to also blame life’s pressures: work obligations (40 percent to 19 percent in other states), financial reasons (35 percent to 18 percent), and family obligations (26 percent to 21 percent).

“If you have to worry about putting dinner on the table versus going to class, it’s a pretty easy decision,” said Alex Pader, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, who is enrolled at both American River community college in Sacramento and at Sacramento State University.

Pader also serves on a state task force of 21 education experts trying to improve community college transfer rates and student success in an era of deep budget cuts.

The community college system of 112 campuses gets more than $9 billion a year from the state. Lawmakers will reduce its allocation by $290 million in 2011-12, and by another $129 million in 2012-13. That could drop further if Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to extend existing taxes never makes it to the ballot box or if voters defeat it.

Meanwhile, the community college price tag is rising to $36 a unit from $26 next fall.

— Reach Nanette Asimov at nasimov@sfchronicle.com

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