SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. – It’s a chilly Wednesday evening on the eve of what are expected to be massive protests  across the state, and Ryan Vanderpol is offering up some advice to Don Griffin, chancellor of the City College of San Francisco. Sporting a blue fedora and fidgeting with an umbrella, the student president of the college’s Ocean campus leans toward his chancellor and suggests Griffin think twice about showing openness to another tuition increase. While the authority to hike community college tuition in California rests with lawmakers, students are increasingly concerned their leaders will temper opposition to tuition hikes in hopes of securing more state funding.
“I’m not asking you to be unrealistic,” says Vanderpol, president of the Associated Students for his campus. “Just know it hurts.”
Looking into an orange and purple sunset, the chancellor acknowledges tough choices ahead.
“It will hurt some students [if tuition is raised],” Griffin says quietly, without signaling how the debate might ultimately turn out.
Dispatches From the Crisis
This is a first in a series of articles
assessing the impact of budget cuts
on California campuses.
Subsequent stories will focus on
the University of California at Davis
and California State at Sacramento.
Lawmakers approved a 30 percent tuition increase  for spring, bringing annual tuition up to $780 -- $26 per unit – for full-time students in credit-bearing courses. While that may still sound like a bargain, students say the increases are compounded by spikes in the cost of public transportation and reduced available hours at work.
“It’s affecting everybody,” says Felix Cabrera, a student at City College. “It’s an avalanche.”
Indeed, there’s already early evidence to suggest that the fee increases have led to some enrollment decline across the state. The 110-campus system’s latest projections show enrollment dropping  1 percent or 21,000 students in 2009-10, and community college leaders expect those declines to continue if funding doesn't improve.
“I’ll hear the argument ‘Hey, it’s still really cheap,’ but I’m not going to play that game,” Vanderpol says. “I think it’s a dangerous slope to go down. As far as I’m concerned students can’t come to school, and that’s unacceptable.”
Getting a Seat – By Any Means
Competition to secure class slots at City College has grown so intense that some students are employing heretofore unseen tactics to improve their chances of finding a seat. Faculty members now have to keep an eye out for forged registration forms, which students doctor in Photoshop to give the appearance that they registered earlier. If the ruse goes undetected, the earlier registration date will give students a better shot at a coveted slot.
“It really shows the desperation,” says Lindy McKnight, dean of counseling and student support.
Students say the registration trick is working less these days, because faculty are often checking to see if the printed forms match digital records that accurately record registration dates. Even so, no one is missing the irony of the fact that students would resort to deception to access public education.
Over the past year, the college of more than 100,000 students has cut 625 class sections, while enrollment has remained relatively flat. Statewide, colleges estimate having reduced course offerings by 5 percent, and even more sections are expected to be eliminated next year. That’s resulted in thousands of students simply being shut out due to lack of offerings, and City College alone estimates 8,000 students were turned away this year. Desperate to keep sections open, the college has gone so far as to hit up donors for $6,000 donations to save individual classes .
Things look even bleaker for this summer, when City College has announced it will shut down  rather than offering the paltry number of classes officials say they can afford. The college could have “camouflaged” its dire fiscal situation by offering a very small number of classes this summer, but in some ways that seemed an even greater disservice, the chancellor says.
“We would have hundreds of students expecting classes when there would just not be classes,” Griffin says.
Frustrated with dwindling resources, Californians marched in protest Thursday  at City College and a number of other institutions across the state. The state faces a $20 billion budget deficit, and City College expects a shortfall of as much as $15 million next year on top of the $18 million shortfall -- about 8 percent -- the college had this year..
Budget reductions have been a particular hardship for the large numbers of first generation and minority students in California’s community colleges, administrators say. The college has scaled back academic advising services that are particularly important for students who may be less familiar with the often-complicated path toward graduation.
“The students are not already on the track [to succeed],” says Tom Blair, chair of the foreign language department. “They need help getting on the track.”
As chair of Continuing Student Counseling, Bill Goodyear works with students who may be on academic probation or are hoping to re-enter the system after time off from college. Goodyear says counseling hours have been dramatically reduced at campuses like Castro, where 19 hours a week of services have been reduced to two hours. That means students are less likely to ever have a return visit to deal with an issue, and they often wait for prolonged periods just to get an initial appointment.
“Stress levels are off the scale,” says Goodyear, who has noticed more colleagues complaining of illness and fatigue. “We’re maintaining, but we can’t sustain it.”
The scaling back of counseling services and the reduction of class offerings spells trouble for some of the college’s neediest students, Griffin says. With more affluent students being forced out of four-year institutions and trickling into community colleges, the first generation and minority students who now dominate City College will find themselves competing with a crop of new students who are better able to navigate the system without much help, Griffin says. In that competition, it's easy to foresee that some of the neediest students will lose, Griffin says.
“We know who is going to drop out,” he says. “[And] there’s a more assertive individual who knows the system and will get in.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been significant efforts to keep students on track. Faculty have grown accustomed to limiting class sizes to the “physical limitation of the room,” rather than gearing enrollment caps toward what’s most pedagogically sound, says Edgar Torres, chair of Latin American and Latino/a Studies. A typical faculty member teaches 200 students each semester at City College, but Torres now has 241 -- and he had 287 before a number of students dropped his class.
“I have no idea how I’m going to grade that much,” says Torres, conceding he may have to scrap writing assignments that were designed to improve students' critical thinking.
Vacancies Leave Jobs Undone
To avoid layoffs, City College has relied largely on attrition to cut administrative and consultant expenditures by 18 percent. Those making more than $150,000 have also been "compelled" to reduce their salaries by 6 percent, Griffin says.
There are now 13 administrative slots unfilled at City College, including the positions of vice chancellors, deans and the chief information technology officer. Each unfilled position means new tasks for an existing employee, who often has to give up some responsibilities to take on others. Griffin, for instance, has sacrificed some lobbying, community involvement and time with students in order to handle the strategic planning that his vice chancellor of policy and research was previously heading up.
“There is a price to be paid for it. We are less effective,” he concedes.
Griffin remains optimistic, however, that the financial pressures on higher education will ultimately convince policymakers to increase funding to community colleges. Community colleges are positioned to deliver general education courses at a lower cost than their four-year counterparts, and “parents and voters” will demand they’re properly funded to do so, Griffin says.
“By far, we are not looking at the death of the community colleges," he says.
In the meantime, students are increasingly demonstrating that it's a financial struggle to stay in class. City College has seen the number of students eligible for financial aid increase by 17 percent -- 3,500 students -- in the last year, and students frequently say that limited course offerings have made it difficult to maintain the full-time status required for federal aid. In such a climate, students say it's not uncommon to come across former classmates who have already given up.
Xochitl Bemadette Moreno, a student who works with a local non-profit representing low-income residents, says she recently shared a city bus with two students who told her the expense of college had forced them out.
"People are falling through the cracks," she says. "They are just not coming here."