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Voices of Disillusionment : Community College Dropouts Complain of Closed Courses, Little Direction

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They enrolled in the nation’s largest community college system, often uncertain about their future, some the first in their families to venture beyond high school. They hoped their college years would yield new friends, academic enrichment and the start of a career.

But for four former students at Valley College in Van Nuys, their first higher education experience was a sometimes frustrating and disappointing trip through a revolving door that pushed them out of the Los Angeles Community College District.

One dropped out to take a warehouse job, feeling lost in the huge system and facing pressures to earn a living. Another fled to a more modern suburban school, turned off by a dilapidated campus and impersonal environment. One tired of restricted class offerings; another felt confused and dissatisfied with career-counseling services.

Although they are only four voices from one college, their reasons for abandoning the Los Angeles system echo those that college officials say are to blame for a troubling 3.3% districtwide decline in student enrollment this fall.

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In the past five years, the student tally in the nine-campus district has fallen by nearly 20,000, plunging total enrollment to 97,212, its second-lowest level since 1970. The decline also could cost the district about $6 million in state funding this year.

District officials and other educators point to years of rising student fees, state budget cuts that have eroded programs and growing student doubts on whether a community college education is worth its price in today’s difficult economy as some of the most common reasons why students are leaving.

“It’s not just one thing,” said district Chancellor Neil Yoneji, declining to offer his own ranking of factors behind the enrollment decline. “We need to look into this much more fully and develop some strategies. We don’t have the answers to all the questions,” he said.

Valley College, the largest campus in the district, has lost more than 3,800 students over the past five years, falling to 15,450 this fall.

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“It’s kind of depressing,” said Valley College Student Body President Lorenzo Trujillo. A student there since 1993, the 21-year-old North Hollywood resident has seen many classmates fall away. Trujillo knows firsthand about the difficulties faced by today’s college students. He could barely scrape up enough money to attend himself.

Below are the stories of four former Valley College students:

Javier Gutierrez, 22

Van Nuys

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Javier Gutierrez so enjoyed drawing that after graduating from Van Nuys High School and enrolling in Valley College, he hoped to become an architect.

“You always have to go for your dreams. That was my dream,” he recalled recently.

His goal, however, was short-lived. After several semesters juggling studies at Valley and a part-time job at a local Costco store, Gutierrez felt mounting financial pressures, torn between helping to support his family and paying for rising school fees.

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Between 1992 and 1993, California more than doubled its community college tuition to $13 per unit. Gutierrez said he was not eligible for much financial aid because he and his parents were working. On top of the student fees, his drawing classes had costly book and supply expenses.

Even if he finished community college, he figured he would not be able to afford a university education. And all around him, friends were leaving school for work.

So when the company offered him a full-time job, he decided to quit school to become a warehouse stockman.

“Money isn’t everything, but it sure helps,” said Gutierrez, who dropped out in mid-semester. “That’s what it all comes down to--money,” said Gutierrez, whose new career goal is to rise to warehouse manager.

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These days, the eldest of four siblings and the first in his family to attend college--if even for a short time--says he’s doing fine. He has earned some seniority at work, has a 401k retirement plan, saves most of his paycheck, still lives with his parents, and even bought a rental house.

Occasionally, he has second thoughts about his choice, especially when his parents chide him about it, feeling he should have continued his education. But then he looks around at work and sees employees with college degrees working alongside him. Today, he said, “Even if you have a degree, you have to start from the bottom.”

Josh Ledebur, 20

Sun Valley

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Although Josh Ledebur lives five minutes from Valley College, five days a week he spends 70 minutes round-trip driving to distant Moorpark College, where he is student president this year. And Ledebur, who had taken classes at Valley while in high school, doesn’t mince words as to why.

At Moorpark, he said, faculty and staff members know his name and he is not simply an unknown face in the crowd. The campus has newer buildings and is nestled amid rolling hills, contrasted with Valley’s older and more urban setting. Moorpark students seem more focused on school and less raucous, he said.

Ledebur is part of a daily exodus of students who live in the Los Angeles district, but choose to take classes at more than a dozen other suburban districts from the Antelope Valley to Ventura. At last count, about 52,000 students attend classes outside the Los Angeles district, contrasted with only about 12,000 outsiders who come in.

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“The system there at Valley, you just feel like a peon, an ant among the crowd,” Ledebur said of the 15,450-student campus. “I felt the system there was just overloaded and that you weren’t important.”

Ledebur said he also “feels safer” in Moorpark’s semi-rural setting where he sometimes sees a horse trotting down the road.

“It seems like this place is growing and that place is just stale,” he said, comparing the two schools.

Initially, he chose Moorpark because he wanted to enroll in its exotic animal management program, which was not offered elsewhere. But later, when the time came to take general education classes that were available at Valley, he chose to stay at the nearly 11,000-student Moorpark campus.

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Maggie Martinez, 24

North Hollywood

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In a district with plummeting enrollment, Maggie Martinez found it ironic that there was no room in her first-choice courses.

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Restricted to taking morning classes because of her afternoon and evening job, Martinez could not even get on the waiting list for early classes in English and justice administration after waiting to register until the start of the fall semester.

“When I went, it was already too late. The classes were already full,” Martinez said of her try at fall registration. “A lot of people want to go in the morning so they can get it over with,”

As a result, Martinez, who wants to pursue a civilian job with the Los Angeles Police Department, left Valley College and enrolled at Glendale Community College.

At Glendale, “I went over and I applied. No problem at all,” she said.

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Martinez said she left Valley reluctantly, having forged friendships over her five years of attending classes. Eventually, she hopes to return and graduate with her classmates--the ones who are left.

Many, she said, dropped out over the years, often to pursue jobs or because of tight finances. Some, like Martinez, left frustrated by the lack of course offerings at convenient times.

Campus and district officials concede that class availability is a problem, particularly for entry-level English and math classes. In the past, the district would simply hire temporary instructors. But today, officials say there simply isn’t the money for such hires.

A recent district report said the course shortage “may be the bottleneck of our student recruitment and retention” efforts.

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Robert Zendejas, 23

North Hills

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Robert Zendejas knew what he wanted: training for an electronics job. But after a year at Valley College he found himself taking English classes when he wanted hands-on skills and could never seem to hook up with a counselor to help him. He felt himself drifting and wondering whether college was going to lead to the job he needed.

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Then he saw a television commercial for the ITT Technical Institute in Van Nuys, a private degree-granting trade school that promised job placement help. Zendejas made his move. He dropped out of Valley in 1992, completed the ITT program in two years and never regretted abandoning the Los Angeles Community College District.

Today, he works as a quality technician at Xircom Inc., a Thousand Oaks computer networking company, one of a handful of job offers he had before even graduating from ITT. The private school cost about $16,000, far more than community college. But Zendejas said it was worth every cent.

“I have no regrets. I definitely think I made the right choice,” said the 23-year-old North Hills resident, who now is married. “When I was at Valley, I kind of felt alone. It was up to me, with no guidance where to go,” said Zendejas, the first in his family to attend college.

“At ITT,” he recalled, “they sit you down and tell you this is what you need to do and this is where you need to go.” At Valley, he said, “I never had anyone sit down and tell me this is their program” for job placement.

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His choice carried a steep price. Zendejas financed much of his ITT schooling with loans and it could take 10 years to pay off his $10,000 balance.

Although community colleges long have had job training as part of their mission, Yoneji, the district’s chancellor, conceded that his campuses “are not geared up” to offer the same level of job placement as schools such as ITT.

But, he added, “We also understand the need to strengthen those services.”

Zendejas has this advice to his former school:

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“The students have to be acknowledged,” he said. “I felt . . . it didn’t matter to the school whether I was there or not.”


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