The Last Stop

Among last to start classes in California, community colleges on quarter system struggle -- amid severe budget cuts and overcrowding -- to serve students being turned away elsewhere.
September 23, 2009

This week, many students in the San Francisco Bay Area who have either been priced or blocked out of other institutions have their hopes pinned on Foothill and De Anza Colleges, two of the last community colleges in California to finalize their enrollment and start classes.

The two colleges, which make up a district that is one of the few in the state to operate on the quarter system, began their academic year Monday, three weeks after many of their sister institutions. Now, amidst severe state budget cuts and overcrowding issues that have crippled enrollment at both the state’s two- and four-year institutions, Foothill and De Anza face the unique challenge of being the veritable last stop for many students seeking the courses they need to continue their education.

Jeff Schinske, a biology professor at De Anza, knew the suburban San Jose campus would be crowded on Monday, as countless students on waitlists tried to will their way into already jam-packed sections. Still, he could not imagine the circus that awaited him at the college when he set out from home that morning.

“The entire environment is quite chaotic,” Schinske said Monday afternoon. “I haven’t seen it like this in all my time here. … At 10 o’clock in the morning, all the streets in front of campus were packed with traffic. Even with my staff permit, I was unable to find a parking spot, so I ended up parking a mile off campus in a residential neighborhood. I think that’s kind of an appropriate prelude for what it’s going to be like around here this week.”

Even before classes started, more than 13,000 students were on waiting lists at De Anza – a college that served about 19,000 students last fall – mostly for English and mathematics courses required for graduation and transfer. Long waiting lists for essential classes are a fact of life this term, despite moves by De Anza’s administration to shift sections from low-demand to high-demand courses.

Peter Aguilar, a De Anza student with hopes of transferring to nearby San Jose State University to study business, is one of the unlucky students on a waiting list for the one class he needs to transfer. In his previous two years at the college, he said, he has never had trouble getting into any classes.

“I needed to get into this English class and, wouldn’t you know it, I was 40 people deep on the waiting list and couldn’t get in,” said Aguilar, who is nearing the limit on the number of credits he can carry over to San Jose State. “I’m not going to continue taking silly courses that won’t carry over. I mean, I’m working to pay for school, and time is money for me. I can try to take some undergraduate courses instead of the courses I need now, but I’m going [Tuesday] to try to get into another section of English. I have to do this, or I’m S.O.L.”

At Foothill, located farther north near Palo Alto, the waiting lists are not as long, but the situation for many of its students is just as dire. More than 2,800 students are on lists at the college, which served more than 13,000 students last fall. In the highest demand are English and biology classes, the latter which serve as gateway courses for students entering crowded nursing or allied health programs.

In addition to students like Aguilar, who need credits to transfer, international students are among the most vulnerable at Foothill, said Judy Miner, the college's president.

“One interesting phenomenon we’ve seen is that transfers from Foothill are coming back to us for classes,” Miner said. “Some of the international students who graduated from Foothill and are attending San Jose State have not been able to get the full load over there required by immigration law. Some counselors and major advisers there, at the other [University of California] and [California State University] schools, are telling these students to piece together a full-time schedule with some classes here at Foothill. They’re saying things like, ‘I know you’re a business major, but how about taking this biology class?’ ”

Strategic Scheduling

As Foothill and De Anza had to trim down on their offerings this fall because of a major cut in state funding, administrators from both institutions had to make calculated scheduling changes to shift the remaining sections from low-demand to high-demand courses.

Brian Murphy, president at De Anza, said section cancellations have been less discipline-specific and more focused on certain class times, such as early morning sections, that are less well attended than others. He noted that 5 percent of the college’s sections have been cut for this fall, winter and spring quarters. That equates to 100 sections each quarter.

“We’re trying to keep the shifting of the remaining sections within departments,” Murphy said. “So, for instance, we’re not cutting the arts to bolster mathematics. It’s much more surgical than that. For example, we had six sections of a third-level accounting class in which five were entirely full. The sixth course only had a few students, so we cut that sixth course and made that section an introductory accounting course, a class we have [that has] a waiting list with over 180 students.”

Over at Foothill, where budget cuts also forced a 5 percent reduction in the number of sections, the rearranging did eliminate some disciplines. Miner said that, for instance, the college has had to cut German and Italian and will cut French next year to make room for sections in other high-demand areas. Among languages, Spanish is expected to benefit from the shifts; the college's mathematics offerings have also increased 15 percent as a result of the section trading.

“In these shifts, I feel most badly for those students who really need to continue in a series of courses,” Miner said. “For example, I taught you the first quarter of Italian, but I can’t give you the second. I worry about those students for whom there’s so much more lost than just enrollment in a class. Still, this is driven partly by economics and the commitment we have to provide programming so that students can be successful. I wouldn’t say there’s anything determinative in picking a favorite, such as here’s where I’d pick this class over that class. But, we can’t escape our commitment to basic skills.”

In addition to language cuts, a number of the college’s “adaptive learning” and “disabled service” classes – primarily extension courses for the elderly in the community – have been trimmed so that their sections can be shifted to more high-demand courses. Not everyone is happy with these cuts, although some critics in the state have argued that shedding these programs can make community colleges leaner and more effective.

“I don’t think the college is better or more efficient without these programs,” said Katie Townsend-Merino, vice president of instructional and institutional research at Foothill. “It’s just narrowed our focus. I know you can’t make everyone happy here, but it makes me sad to see these lifelong learning opportunities disappear. It really feels as if the state has let go of its commitment to continuing education.”

Politicizing the Situation

Aside from simply saying “I’m sorry” to the thousands of students who have been locked out of classes at Foothill and De Anza because of state budget cuts, administrators at both institutions are also trying to stir them to political action.

De Anza sent out a letter to students last week explaining the difficulties they would face registering for classes and the rationale for the section cuts amidst such high demand. Most indicative of the environment in California, however, is the fact that the letter also lists the names and contact information for local government officials, state legislators and even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“We’re in this together,” reads the letter from Murphy. “You might want to contact the Governor, legislative leadership and your representatives about your efforts to get the education you deserve. It always helps them to hear from real people grappling with real issues, like you.”

Though Murphy defended his call for students to become politically active, others at De Anza are not so sure this is the best move.

“I don’t think it does that much good because, for example, if it’s going to take another year for you to become a nurse, it’s of little comfort to say, ‘Go protest at the state capitol,' ” said Schinske, noting he will not actively tell his students to contact legislators and other government officials. “If I’m going to give them advice, I’ll help them in other ways, like telling them to be knowledgeable about offerings at other schools. They’re not some pawn in a political game. They’re a student, who may be a year back in their education because of this.”

Some students also echoed a similar sentiment.

“It’s so easy to say, ‘I’m sorry, but anyway here’s who you can take your issue to,’ ” Aguilar said. “That’s kind of a pass-the-buck mentality. Me, I’m just stuck in the middle here, and there’s not much I can do.”


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