At American River College, in Sacramento, desperate times are calling for desperate measures.
Like so many community colleges in California, all reeling from $825 million in state budget cuts , American River simply does not have enough classroom space to accommodate all of its students. Last month, for example, estimates noted that almost 250,000 students statewide would be kept from community colleges due to dwindling space.
(A tentative budget deal in the state was reached Monday night between the governor and legislative leaders. The deal relies on budget cuts, not tax increases, to close the budget gaps, suggesting that deep cuts to higher education will not go away, and the Los Angeles Times  reported that passage is not assured.)
The crunch has been especially noticeable in general education courses required for graduation or transfer to a four-year institution, such as introductory English composition and college mathematics. Students nearing graduation who have put off these courses now jockey for position against an influx of first-time students who fear that if they do not take them now they will never get the chance to finish on time and within their budget.
As a result of unprecedented student demand and a dwindling state budget, small classes have become a thing of the past. Sections at American River with fewer than 22 students have been eliminated, and professors are expected to pack as many students into their classes as the building’s fire code will allow.
“On the first day of Algebra, I started out with about 56 students in one class,” said Tony Barcellos, mathematics professor at American River, of one of his summer courses. “About half dozen or so of those are walk-ins. It can get quite dramatic. As some of my colleagues and I have told students, if they’re not on the waitlist, then there’s really nothing I can do. We try to have about 42 desks in each class, and we generally enroll 36 students originally, so I can add 6 more from the list on the first day. After we run out of desks, we’ve resorted to using folding chairs until we reach capacity.”
And it isn't just the basic mathematics courses. Nancy Reitz, mathematics department chair at American River, noted with some surprise that her calculus and other upper-level courses were just as affected. She said that physical science and engineering majors from nearby University of California and California State University campuses are enrolling in these community colleges courses to beef up their transcripts amid similar cuts at their institutions.
“The impact of this is that we’re essentially cutting courses that would have filled up anyway," Reitz said.
This summer’s cross-pollination of four-year students taking major-related courses at nearby community colleges comes following an announcement from California State  that its campuses will not be accepting transfers for the spring semester of 2010. University of California campuses are also expected to significantly reduce transfer opportunities  for the upcoming academic year. The news has made students at American River, bent on transferring to nearby four-year institutions, nervous.
“Sacramento State, right here in the capital and one of the universities we send most of our students to, is planning not to accept students in the spring,” Barcellos said. “In some instances, students will decide to spend another semester or year here soaking up more credits, but they’re hearing things about higher fees and lower admission. They’re becoming angst-ridden potential transfers. It’s a matter of having them reconsider their options. I’m telling them, ‘If you had your heart set of Sac State, you might want to consider looking elsewhere in the state.’ ”
Still, Barcellos is quick to acknowledge that this might not always be an option for his students, who are often aiming to attend college near home out of financial necessity. He noted that financial issues come up on a daily basis now for his students.
“One of the things I’m noticing is that, more and more, students are absent for more emergencies than was common in the past,” Barcellos said. “For example, they’ve lost their housing and have to move from where they are or they’re having troubles with their vehicle. These are actual emergencies, like ‘My car broke down’ or ‘We’ve been foreclosed and I have to move my family,’ not ‘I don’t feel like going to school.’”
Students are not the only ones feeling the pinch at American River. Adjunct faculty members, like their students, are scrambling to find classes for themselves.
“When I was canceling classes for the fall, I asked who would be willing to get along without one less class and not feel a severe financial impact,” Reitz said. “We have some adjuncts that are retired and are just doing this to earn more money, but we have others who have more obligations. For example, several faculty members have told me that their adult children have lost their jobs, have moved back in with them and need help paying off their student loans. Also, some said they need to be at a certain percentage because their husband has lost his job and they need to maintain the medical insurance. The uncertainly of not knowing when the cuts will end is very pervasive, and it does affect the way a person works.”
As a full-time faculty member, Barcellos said he has not felt the stress of the recent cuts as much as his adjunct colleagues. Still, he said the overall atmosphere is affecting everyone’s work ethic.
"It’s raised the level of anxiety in the classroom,” Barcellos said. “There are performance deficiencies that come from tensions and insecurity. And while we can try to ameliorate that to some degree, it does hang over our heads.”
Further south in San Diego, at Miramar College, there is another kind of overcrowding issue. Academic counselors, responsible for helping students survey the uncertain terrain of cut courses, are becoming harder to see.
“We had a number of staff cuts,” said Rick Cassar, academic counselor at Miramar. “Typically, we each saw seven to eight students a day in one-hour sessions. Now, there is such a demand from students that everything is on a walk-in basis. It’s kind of like the DMV. I’m seeing about 30 students a day. Recently, I even saw 54 students in one day, each in short ten-minute appointments. Morale is down in our office, and people are feeling burnt out.”
Despite the short appointments and the dire straits in which he finds his students, Cassar said he has to project optimism about the current situation.
“There’s a lot of despair out there,” Cassar said. “You have no money. You can’t get into classes to graduate. And even if you could get into classes to graduate, you might not be able to find a job. I don’t know what the Great Depression in ’29 was like, but from what I hear from my grandparents, it sounds a lot like what’s going on now. It’s my job to be a cheerleader and keep people upbeat and tell them we’ll get them into classes on time. If we can’t maintain a positive attitude and our morale drops, then we’re screwed.”
Chief among the worries of Cassar’s students is transferability. He said he has encountered a number of reverse transfers from various private institutions throughout the country, or California natives coming home, who have enrolled at his community college in hopes of later transferring into a UC or Cal State. Against many students’ wishes, he said he is advising them to stay at the community college for as long as possible to guarantee admission to the state public universities, many of whom have cut down on transfers.
Still, Cassar worries about the long-term impact of these cuts on California’s three-tier system.
“When the UCs and Cal States make cuts, then more and more people are seeing the community colleges as an option,” Cassar said. “More high school students who would have been eligible for them are looking at us first. We’ll be impacted with more qualified students up front than we are now.”
The concern of the moment, however, is the plight of California’s community college students, many of whom may find themselves trapped without the classes they need to graduate or unable to transfer onward to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Maria Velasquez, a 35-year-old single mother of two attending Miramar, said she has had a number of classes she needed for graduation canceled at the last minute. Still, she notes her largest concern is financial.
“I’ve been receiving help from welfare to pay for my books and supplies for school,” said Velasquez, also noting that her welfare is also used to subsidize other college costs like tuition until she gets reimbursed by her late-arriving financial aid checks. “But, they’re saying that we may receive IOUs next months. It’s put pressure of me because if I have to pay my own way, I’ll have to stop everything to get a job to help pay for housing. It’s my concern that they might issue these IOUs and then I might not be able to get help from anywhere.”
Cathy Rochas, a 23 year-old single mother of one attending San Diego City College, is doing whatever she can to graduate amid the class cuts.
“I’ve been going to a different college, Southwestern [College] about 30 minutes away, to get the classes I’ve been looking for,” Rochas said. “Some of my friends are even going to three and four colleges. It’s pretty hard here.”
If she is unable to transfer to a Cal State campus, as she has planned, she said she is thinking about joining the military. At the moment, however, she is just trying to balance work and college to ultimately find a better way to support her seven year-old son -- and the child she has on the way.
“People who register for classes are coming in really upset,” said Rochas, who also works for the local office of CalWORKS , a program which offers services to students receiving welfare. “It’s been getting worse and worse for them to find space.”