Caught in the Class Crunch : Registration a Nightmare as College Students Vie for Too Few Openings : ' If you think this is hell, you can reach beyond the reaches of hell--into the abyss--if you try to get night classes. ' Connie Mercado, psychology major at Cypress College

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back to school doesn't always mean back to class. Just ask Kim Nguyen who is attending--or trying to attend--Cypress College.

"I petitioned to get into five classes," Nguyen, 17, of Garden Grove said Monday, the first day of class. "So far, I've shown up at two (classes) and couldn't get into either of them."

Welcome to the academic age of budget-cutting, where fewer state dollars translate into fewer class sections for students at state colleges and universities. At Cypress and other community colleges around Orange County, students scrambled to squeak into the final prized slots in courses.

Classes began at Cypress, Fullerton, Saddleback, Irvine Valley and Rancho Santiago colleges Monday, a week after Orange Coast and Golden West colleges opened their doors for the fall semester.

"We're all pleasantly surprised with how smoothly the first day of class went," said Jane Armstrong, acting president of Fullerton College. "Those students who got in early and took care of registration by telephone got a good deal."

Many classes were full at Irvine Valley College, spokesman George McCrory said. "Just about every parking space on campus is filled--even those which aren't supposed to be spaces," he said.

At Cypress College, students buzzed in the school halls and compared notes on which instructors were tough and which were easier. In the school's Twain Station snack bar, students chomped on doughnuts and hamburgers while scanning their new textbooks. Some spoke frantically in Vietnamese or Spanish on cafeteria pay telephones.

"I just graduated from high school in June, and I came to Cypress because I heard it's bigger than other schools," Shital Patel said, tucking papers into her backpack.

Patel's academic plate will be full this fall: She enrolled in computer science, theater arts, psychology, counseling and English classes.

"So far, I love college--you're free to do anything," said Patel, 17, of Anaheim. To add to her excitement, she noted she got into her 8 a.m. English class after trying unsuccessfully to get into two others.

Other students were not so lucky.

"There are students fighting for classes that are open, but we have a lot of classes that are closed," said Larry Mercadante, vice president of student development services. "We just cannot offer enough English and math classes."

Many students seek basic English and math because they are prerequisites for other courses, Mercadante said. To alleviate the course crunch, classes in other subjects have been cut back and the number of English and math courses increased, he said.

Administrators have scaled back the number of courses offered to match cuts in their budgets, they said.

At Cypress, nearly $820,000 was pared from last year's budget--leaving about $27 million for this school year, said Donna Hatchett, spokeswoman for the North Orange County Community College District. Fullerton College's budget was cut by more than $635,000, leaving $35 million for the upcoming school year.

Those numbers weren't Kim Nguyen's concern, though. She was worried about the numbers that glowed from a black television screen outside the Cypress College administration offices.

The screen showed course numbers that corresponded to the college's remaining open classes, which Nguyen compared carefully with numbers and course descriptions in the catalogue she clutched in her hands.

"None of the classes I wanted were open," Nguyen said.

As Nguyen jotted down a few notes, fellow student Connie Mercado tried to encourage her. Mercado, a psychology major who also works as a receptionist in a hair salon, called registration a desperate process.

"I'm lucky. I signed up for three classes in advance by phone. But she tried to do it at walk-in registration, when there are no classes available," Mercado said. "But if you think this is hell, you can reach beyond the reaches of hell--into the abyss--if you try to get night classes."

Nguyen showed a large, blue card to Mercado; she had written the numbers of two dance classes on it. "Now what?" Nguyen asked.

Mercado put her hand on Nguyen's shoulder.

"Just run over to the teachers who teach those classes and beg for their mercy," Mercado said. To get into classes after registration, students must obtain their teachers' approval, she explained.

With a smile and wave of thanks, Nguyen trotted to the gym to find the instructors, and Mercado followed her with her gaze.

"I'm 24, I've got a kid and here I am getting my education," said Mercado, who dreams of being a psychologist. "The lines and money are worth it."

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