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Community college class wait lists throw a wrench into students’ plans

Kiyan Noyes-Aponte landed on the wait list for every class he wanted at Orange Coast College. The 18-year-old graduate of Mission Viejo High School pleaded with professors for a spot, diligently attended lectures and sat on floors in overcrowded classrooms hoping other students would drop out.

Despite his efforts, he managed to enroll in only two classes at the Costa Mesa campus, enough for part-time status. And he was luckier than many.

Students registering at California community colleges this fall are facing unprecedented hurdles, as campuses have slashed classes in response to budget cuts. At the same time, enrollment has surged, fueled by the largest high school graduating class in the state’s history, older workers returning to school for job training and more students being unable to get into the state’s four-year universities.

Unlike the University of California and California State University, the state’s 112 community colleges — the largest such network in the nation — are expected to enroll all comers. But officials say thousands of students are effectively being turned away because they can’t get classes. Others like Noyes-Aponte, who’d hoped to attend full time, are having to settle for part-time enrollment or are taking courses at several campuses to cobble together the 12 units needed for full-time status.

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Educators say they are concerned that many students may have to stay in college years longer to obtain their degrees or will drop out and not return.

“I want to be successful, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to reach my goals,” said Noyes-Aponte, a mechanical engineering major who is now working part time at a manufacturing firm. He ended up with just a chemistry course and a self-paced trigonometry class with no instructor. “I was scared and stressed. I was literally desperate for classes.”

Officials said they sympathize with Noyes-Aponte and others like him but are hamstrung by state funding reductions. In the 2009-10 school year, the community college system sustained $520 million in cuts, about 8% of its overall budget.

“We do the best we can with the scarce resources we have, but we can’t give enough individual attention to students because we don’t have the support staff we once had,” said California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott. “Most astute individuals are saying we’re doing some damage here and to the economy of California.”

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Scott said his office estimates that about 140,000 potential students did not enroll in community colleges last year because they could not get into classes. That number is expected to be even higher this year.

Scott pointed to grim scenarios up and down the state.

In the nine-college Los Angeles Community College District, course sections are down about 3% from last fall, with larger class sizes as a result, officials said. Entering students, with low priority at registration, typically have the toughest time.

“Continuing students may have been more successful in obtaining a full schedule, while new students are probably less likely to be able to enroll in all of the classes they would like,” said George Prather, senior research analyst for the district.

In the Los Rios Community College District, which includes four Sacramento-area colleges, 850 classes were cut this fall, and the remaining 6,500 course sections all had wait lists.

On the first day of registration at Bakersfield College, more than 3,000 students registered in the first hour, crashing the computer system, said spokeswoman Amber Chiang. The school was one of the few to add classes this fall — 27 sections in subjects including math, English and history — but still had 13,000 students on wait lists, 13% more than last fall. Many are older students returning for job training, she said.

Some students are going to extraordinary lengths to get classes.

Elyery Landavazo attended El Camino College Compton Center last year, but this fall almost all of the classes he wanted were full and had long waiting lists. He said he could take two classes at the Compton campus and two others at Long Beach City College or try to find four classes at one campus. He chose the latter and is now at Los Angeles City College, an hour and a half by bus and rail from his South Gate home.

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It could be worse. One of his best friends is taking one class at Santa Monica College, another at Pasadena City College and two more at the Long Beach campus.

“I take a bus to the Metro station and then the Blue Line to the Red Line, but at least I get to do my homework on the way,” said Landavazo, 21, who estimates that with class availability so iffy, it may take him two more semesters to get the credits he needs to transfer to a UC campus. “Last year I signed up for classes a month before school started and had no problem getting into any of them. It’s way harder this year.”

Anticipating the bleak budget picture and the effect it would have on its 45,000 students, the San Mateo County Community College District in June became the first in the state to pass a parcel tax to boost class offerings and hire back part-time faculty.

The $34 annual tax will raise $6 million to $7 million over four years but was approved too late to help students this fall. The election was closely monitored by other community college districts as a means of reducing dependence on state general funds.

“We’re the last place for students who aren’t able to fit into UC or CSU, and we felt we couldn’t sit back and fail to be proactive about them,” said Patricia Miljanich, president of the district’s board of trustees. “But even doing what we’ve done, we know there are still going to be students who are not going to get classes.”

At Orange Coast, administrators have sought to prioritize, preserving basic skills and technical education courses, as well as classes students need in order to transfer, said President Dennis Harkins. But like many other campuses, the college has eliminated its January intersession for two years running and reduced summer classes by half.

“It’s causing us to reexamine the way we provide services,” Harkins said. “We have to be strategic about making decisions in the hopes of serving as many students as possible.”

Nora Aponte-Woodring, Noyes-Aponte’s mother, said she had trouble believing that her son was having such a tough time getting classes until she visited the campus and spoke with officials. Aponte-Woodring, a mother of four, had attended community college herself and earned a degree in microbiology at UC Davis. She returned to school and is now a law student at Whittier College. She says she never encountered the barriers now facing her son.

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“It’s our job to guide them to adulthood, but now we’re telling them that there’s no place for them in schools,” she said. “It’s going to be a big impediment in their lives.”

For his part, Noyes-Aponte said he is counting on an earlier registration date next semester. “I’m going to be fighting for those classes,” he said.

carla.rivera@latimes.com


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