Reversing a five-year growth trend, enrollment at California's community colleges dipped 1%, or about 21,000 students, this school year as campuses pared courses because of state budget cuts, Chancellor Jack Scott said Wednesday.
The downward trend is likely to continue next year unless state funding increases, Scott said in a telephone news briefing that projected a challenging future for the nation's largest system of public higher education. California's 112 community colleges educate about 2.9 million students annually.
Demand for the colleges is still strong, fueled by unemployed workers seeking retraining and students displaced from the University of California and California State University systems, institutions that are grappling with their own funding shortages.
Scott said the slight enrollment decline was based on preliminary figures from the college districts and reflected numerous students being turned away because of fewer or overcrowded classes.
Even with the dip, the chancellor said, community colleges are serving 200,000 students for whom they receive no state funding. For example, about 3% of students are unfunded in the Los Angeles Community College District; in the Riverside district the figure is 13%, and in the Barstow district, more than 39%.
"Customers want our services but we cannot offer more classes," Scott said. "Many colleges are dipping into reserves to fund these students. They've had to reduce course offerings or they'd be facing bankruptcy."
California Community Colleges is composed of 72 districts. Two former satellite campuses of Riverside City College -- Moreno Valley and Norco -- received accreditation Feb. 1 to become the two newest independent colleges in the system.
The Legislature cut the community college budget by $520 million for the current school year. Course sections were reduced by an estimated 5%, and some districts are reporting that 50% of their new students can't gain access to classes, Scott said.
At Pasadena City College, 89% of classes for the spring semester that started this week are already closed, spokesman Juan Gutierrez said.
The campus of about 26,000 students has not had to limit access because many professors have made room for extra students, he said.
But courses in some under-enrolled subjects such as music and languages may be dropped.
"The thing about community colleges is that they have been pretty much everything to everyone," said Gutierrez.
"But we don't have the funding to offer lifelong learning and enrichment courses and we're starting to focus more on core competency," he said.
Scott said all community colleges are being asked to focus resources on basic education courses such as English and math, those that provide job training and those needed to transfer to a Cal State or UC campus. The "mission creep" that made room for flower arranging, yoga and other recreational studies is likely to be greatly reduced or eliminated, he said.
"Moving in the wrong direction in terms of educating our population could be fairly disastrous for our economy," Scott said. "We must look at the fundamental needs of California and the consequences we will be faced with if we fail to meet those needs."