Professor Rodrigo Palacios had never taught more than 35 students in a class. But this term, enrollment in his introductory Spanish course at Los Angeles Trade Technical College leapt to about 55.
"People get frustrated because I don't have time for everyone," said Palacios, a 20-year veteran of the community college.
One of his students, David Biagas, 21, who needs the course to transfer to a bachelor's program at Cal State Los Angeles, said he is forced to turn to his classmates for help. Otherwise "it would be difficult to grasp some of the concepts."
The sour economy and the boom in the college-age population have hit California's higher education system hardest at its port of entry: its network of 108 community colleges, renowned for their number and bargain price. Even before the dimensions of the state budget crisis were known, these schools were turning away students, cutting some courses and overloading others to compensate.
The pain is about to spread.
Under Gov. Gray Davis' proposal to close a budget gap he estimates at $34.6 billion, the cost of a community college education would more than double, from $11 to $24 a unit. That could generate enough sticker shock to keep some low-income and immigrant students from re-enrolling or even applying, educators say.
Fees also would rise in the more expensive and selective California State University and University of California systems. Higher education analysts fear a replay of the early 1990s, when cost increases at two-year and four-year schools caused enrollment to dip by 217,000, or 12%.
Under the Davis administration's budget proposal for next year, system fees for resident undergraduates studying full-time at Cal State campuses would rise to $1,968. Combined with a mid-year increase passed in December, that would amount to an increase of 38% over two years.
In the UC system, systemwide fees for resident undergraduates studying full time would rise to $4,629, an overall 35% increase when combined with a UC hike passed last month. In many cases, financial aid would cover the increases for students from families with annual incomes below $60,000, officials said.
More fee increases are likely. Higher education is "one of the few places where they can increase prices and generate significant revenue, " said Michael A. Shires, an assistant professor of public policy at Pepperdine University who has researched higher education issues.
Though proposed cutbacks at the four-year schools mostly spare the classroom -- for now -- they are expected to whittle away at tutoring, counseling, health programs, libraries, research operations and professional development programs for teachers. At Cal State campuses, class sizes are expected to rise slightly; and at UC schools, outreach efforts to minority students and recruitment of tenure-track faculty could suffer, campus leaders say.
At UCLA, plans already are underway to scale back work at the brain injury research center and to halt most mid-year training programs for K-12 teachers.
Some educators say that if the economic and enrollment pressures don't ease, California risks compromising a higher education system that is admired nationally for its quality and accessibility.
"The $64,000 question is now how much will it be harmed," said Travis J. Reindel, director of the state policy analysis for the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities.
History isn't the best guide, because "it's historically unprecedented to have to deal with increased demand of this magnitude at the same time as you're dealing with a bad economy," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose.
However, Callan said, "if we handle this recession in the business-as-usual way, the way we did in the early '90s, the damage is likely to be much greater."
During the first half of the decade, fees nearly quadrupled at community colleges, and they more than doubled for UC and Cal State students.
John D. Welty, president of Cal State Fresno since 1991, said it took his school half a decade to recover from the enrollment losses. He said the university also fell far behind in setting up computer labs, repairing buildings and stocking its library. "We have shortages in our library collections that we're still trying to improve."
Reindel agreed: "You're never able to totally erase the consequences of decisions like these."
Two factors could make matters worse this time. One is the vast size of the budget shortfall. The other is the bulge in the number of students reaching college age in the state, many of them from low-income minority families.
According to the latest forecast by the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the number of students seeking an education at a public college or university in California will jump to 2.71 million by 2010, capping a 12-year surge of 35.8%.
William G. Tierney, director of USC's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, said the cutback in outreach programs at UC and Cal State campuses could jeopardize efforts to enroll more minority students. In the early 1990s, the universities relied on affirmative action. But since voters in 1996 passed Proposition 209, which bans race-based preferences by state agencies, outreach programs have played an increasingly important role.
Another complication is that early retirements for faculty, an important payroll-reducing maneuver in the early 1990s, might not make sense this time. With more students arriving on campus every year, the schools need as many professors to teach them as possible.
"Any way you look at it, there are going to be extraordinarily significant cuts," Tierney said.
Still, there are some reasons for hope.
Higher education spending increases in California since the mid-1990s, intended to compensate for the cutbacks earlier in the decade, may have provided a cushion.
According to the nonpartisan state legislative analyst's office, state spending for higher education fell sharply, from $6.18 billion in 1990-91 to $5.12 billion in 1993-1994. Then it rebounded, climbing to a peak of $10.27 billion last fiscal year. Even with the governor's proposed cuts, state spending on higher education would be $9.43 billion next year.
"We're coming off some years of incredibly good funding," Callan said.
In fact, in the assessment of the legislative analyst's office, the Davis budget actually would boost overall spending by 4.9% for the UC system and 1.6% for Cal State campuses from the levels approved for the current year, with the extra revenue aimed at accommodating more students. In contrast, the office says, the community colleges face a 9.5% reduction.
But given that the state budget crisis could take years to resolve and that higher education is one of the biggest areas of discretionary spending in the state, all campuses may face tight squeezes and pressure for continued fee increases.
Another cushion for many low- and moderate-income students is the Cal Grant financial aid program. In 2000, the grant program was expanded and converted into a state entitlement, providing support for all recent high school graduates meeting the financial-need and academic requirements.
The Davis administration's budget proposal for 2003-04 actually called for increases in Cal Grants, from $632 million this fiscal year to $670 million next year. The universities, likewise, have pledged to put one-third of the money from student fee increases into financial aid for the neediest students.
But higher education experts say a sustained budget crisis could cause lawmakers to consider fundamental changes in how higher education is financed and provided in California.
For now, politicians on both sides of the aisle are struggling to make cuts that do the least damage.
As Sen. Bruce McPherson, the Republican vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, put it: "I don't know of a district where you'd gain votes by saying, 'I'm the champion of fee increases.' "
Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he would oppose fee increases for community college students, because "they're the people with the least money and most need." But he said even more fee increases may have to be considered for Cal State and UC students.
"I don't know how to put this budget together, the hole is so big," Vasconcellos said. "At this point, everything is on the table; nothing is sacred."