The first course Charity Hansen is taking as a freshman at Pasadena City College is a basic class on managing time, speaking up in discussions, setting ambitious goals and then going after them.

If only she could.

It's the only class she managed to get this semester. No math. No English. No science.

Photos: Fading dreams: Higher learning slows to a crawl

"I can't use what I'm being taught yet because I can't get these classes," said Hansen, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles who hopes one day to become a psychologist. "It's frustrating."

Hansen's college education has stalled just as it is beginning. Like thousands of students in California's community college system, she has been reduced to taking one class because there's no room in other classes.

Instead of a full-time load of 12 units, some students are taking three units or even less.

Full coverage: California community colleges

Frustrated students linger on waiting lists or crash packed classes hoping professors will add them later. They see their chances of graduating or transferring diminishing.

It's a product of years of severe budget cuts and heavy demand in the two-year college system. The same situation has affected the Cal State and UC systems, but the impact has been most deeply felt in the 2.4-million-student community college system — the nation's largest.

At Pasadena City College, nearly 4,000 students who are seeking a degree or to transfer are taking a single class this fall. About 63% are taking less than 12 units and are considered part time. The school has slashed 10% of its classes to save money.

The lives of some community college students have become a slow-motion academic crawl, sometimes forcing them to change their career paths and shrink their ambitions.

Mark Rocha, president of Pasadena City College, said California's once-vaunted community college system has never been in such a precarious state.

"It breaks our hearts," he said. "The students who are here, we're desperately telling them 'Don't drop out, don't give up hope. We'll get you through.'"

Since 2007, money from the state's general fund, which provides the bulk of the system's revenue, has decreased by more than a third, dropping from a peak of nearly $3.9 billion to about $2.6 billion last year.

Without enough money, course offerings have dropped by almost a quarter since 2008. In a survey, 78 of the system's 112 colleges reported more than 472,300 students were on waiting lists for classes this fall semester — an average of about 7,150 per campus.

California ranks 36th in the nation in the number of students who finish with a degree or who transfer to a four-year university, according to a February report by the Little Hoover Commission. Many students drop out before completing even half of what is required to earn a typical associate's degree, the report found.

Even for those who persevere, it can take years to graduate — well beyond the two years it once took.

Cinthia Garcia thought she was on the right track. She went straight from high school to El Camino College in Torrance with plans to transfer to a four-year university.

That was six years ago.