Growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, Edwin Echegoyen was expert at turning Lego blocks into elaborate buildings, copying the medieval castle pictured on the box. His dream, even as a boy, was to be an architect.
But after high school, Echegoyen, the 19-year-old son of Salvadoran immigrants, found the prospect of a four-year-college both intimidating and expensive. Instead, he enrolled in Santa Monica College's architecture program, hoping to earn a two-year associate's degree as a first step.
Last week, he got bad news: His program is one of 10 being cut by college administrators, who say the state's budget crisis and the poor economy leave them little choice.
"They tell us to go to school to be educated and then they cut off the funds," Echegoyen said. "What's up with that? Education is supposed to be a way out."
California's 108 community colleges, long a gateway to higher education for young adults from poor families or for older students looking for career changes, are scaling back classes and warning of layoffs, even as demand for degrees steeply rises.
Santa Monica is among the first to scrap entire programs. But the signs of trouble are everywhere: Compton Community College officials sent notices last week to all its full-time faculty members, warning that they might be laid off. Hundreds of classes, as well as weekend and summer sessions, are being axed immediately or soon at Pasadena City College, L.A. City College, Orange County's Santa Ana College and Palm Desert's College of the Desert.
"If we have to take any further cuts, office administration, earth science, architecture" and maybe foreign language programs will have to go, said Mary Spangler, president of L.A. City College.
Schools say they are reluctantly bracing for reductions in the money they receive from Sacramento. Because of a shortfall in tax revenues, the Davis administration asked for $288 million in immediate cuts to the community college system. Last week, legislators passed a less severe $161-million cut, but schools say that still leaves them short of what they need for classes and instructors.
Next fiscal year looks even worse. The governor's budget proposes a 6.2% reduction -- $404 million -- and counts on enrollment of fewer students. In contrast, his budget provides for enrollment increases for California State University and University of California.
Moreover, although the community college system would remain among the nation's most affordable, Davis is proposing to double class fees, to $24 a unit. His administration predicts a 5.7% drop in enrollment as a result.
The cutbacks and fee hikes anger community college advocates, thousands of whom plan to protest today in Sacramento.
"The last thing we should be doing is targeting the community colleges, which take care of the same people who are being hurt in all other aspects of the economy," said Scott Lay, director of state budget issues and a lobbyist for the Community College League of California. "It's an abandonment of the concept of fairness and equal access to education that California has always stood for."
Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean said the governor intends to "preserve the core classroom instruction as much as possible" and noted that he has worked hard to make financial aid available to the neediest students.
But "when you have higher ed representing nearly 14% of the state budget, it unfortunately is going to share some of the pain," McLean said. "This is a year in which everyone is somewhat unhappy."
Even before the Davis administration proposed its budget, community college officials say, they were strapped for funds and hard-pressed to accommodate a boom in college-age students. They were already increasing class sizes and reducing offerings.
Now, they say, there is no more fat to cut.
The experience of Santa Monica College foreshadows many of the hard choices and lost opportunities educators say await campuses throughout California.
Facing $15 million in state-mandated cuts for the next school year, the trustees decided Monday to eliminate 10 programs serving 1,900 students: architecture, fashion design and merchandising, geographic information systems, interior architectural design, office information systems, public safety, recreation, respiratory therapy, tourism/hospitality and transportation technology. In addition, 13 administrative positions were cut.
"This saves us $2 million," said a college spokesman, Bruce Smith. "We still have to find another $13 million. It's only the first shot to see what we can do in a horrible situation."
The cuts, aimed at programs with the lowest enrollments or completion rates, came after $5 million in trims at the beginning of the semester. Trustees, whose decisions won't be final until May, are still looking for ways to salvage the programs, and the school is offering counseling to help affected students transfer their credits elsewhere.
College officials also are considering early retirement incentives, pay cuts and furloughs for faculty and staff members. Also under consideration are shortening the summer school week to four days instead of five and a 30% cut in academic offerings, which would eliminate 1,000 course sections.
"This means maybe we won't have literature classes in our literature program," Smith said. "We may have just composition classes."
Smith said the trustees are acutely aware that their decision "disrupts the students' dreams."
He and others say the mission of the community college -- to serve as an entry point for all students, to provide specialized professional programs and to prepare students to transfer to universities -- is in peril.
Students can transfer to other community colleges. But many of the courses targeted at Santa Monica, for example, are not standard offerings throughout the system and their breadth and quality vary by campus. Some, like architecture, are expensive and tough to find instructors for, which makes them logical targets for cutbacks. Moreover, many community college students lack convenient transportation, are juggling jobs and family obligations and find it difficult to surmount additional challenges.
"My real fear is that students get so discouraged -- particularly lower income students," Smith said. "We'd still like to think of ourselves as an open door to education."
Gida Urboniene, 31, fought back tears as she sat at a desk in a computer classroom on Tuesday. Three years ago, Urboniene came to America from Lithuania, knowing little English. Last spring, after researching the best programs, she enrolled at Santa Monica College to study office information systems.
Now she is one class short of a degree in a doomed program.
Urboniene had hopes of getting a data entry job at a law firm and maybe buying a house. Asked what she will do now, she took a deep breath.
"I don't know," she said.
In the building next door, where auto mechanics, part of the transportation technology program, is taught, students cursed the administration. Charles Holquin, 25, a student in that program, and his 27-year-old wife, Cynthia, who was enrolled in office information systems, have three children. They were intent on putting dead-end jobs, welfare dependence and drug problems far behind them.
When Charles Holquin told his mother he would be the first in the family to go to college, she wept. "When I talk to her on the phone, she says, 'Mijo, we're so proud of you. Don't come back here to Bakersfield,' " he said.
"What upsets me most," said Cynthia Holquin, "is that we're trying to get out, do things the legitimate way and they're slapping us down."
Blocks away, in a class called Respiratory Therapy 1, Chuck Hall also wondered what to do next.
Laid off from his job as head of an accounting office last month, Hall, 57, quickly enrolled at Santa Monica College to earn certification as a respiratory therapist. For mid-career adults, community colleges have long been a path to new professions.
"I don't think there's anything I could get in this economy that's above an entry-level position in accounts receivable," said Hall, who has 35 years of accounting experience, but no accounting degree.
The loss of his $65,000-a-year job meant that he had to find a program that made economic sense. Newly married, he is sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his wife and 15-year-old son. The job loss postponed plans to look for a better place.
With the termination of Santa Monica College's program, a solution that he had considered ideal disappeared.
"There's a private school in the Valley" with a 1 1/2-year program, he said. "But I don't have $18,000 to $20,000 to invest in that kind of a program."
Times staff writers Stuart Silverstein and Mike Anton contributed to this report.