Luis Aparicio wasn't sure he wanted to go back to school, but on Monday morning he was at West Los Angeles College, jostling with thousands of other students as they headed to math and history classes or searched for the cafeteria.
It was the first day of the fall term at most of California's 112 community colleges, and statewide budget cuts meant students were returning from summer break to face higher fees, fewer course offerings and crowded classrooms.
An information booth on the Culver City campus overflowed with students hoping to add high-demand classes such as English. Some, like Aparicio, were looking to fill out their schedules with any open courses they could find.
"I thought I might work this semester, but I chose to come to see if I can get the classes I need to finish," said Aparicio, 21, a business major who hopes to transfer to a four-year university. "I tried to find classes online, but most of them were full. So I decided to come the first day to find any free space."
Maya Bellfield, 19, a nursing major, pored over a list of available classes, looking for history and English courses to complete her transfer requirements.
"If I can't get the classes I need, I might be here an extra semester," said Bellfield.
West L.A. officials estimated that about 10,500 students would enroll this fall. But fewer than normal were expected to be taking a full load of 12 units or more, spokeswoman Michelle Long-Coffee said.
The campus is offering 721 course sections this term, compared with 775 in 2011 and 812 in 2010. That mirrors the trend systemwide, where course offerings have been slashed about 15% since 2008.
Overall enrollment dropped from about 2.9 million in 2008 to 2.4 million in fall 2011, and officials have estimated a further decline this year. The community college system has suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts since 2008; it faces another $338-million cut in January if voters reject a November tax measure supported by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The budget cuts already have resulted in a $10-per-unit fee increase -- from $36 to $46. A full-time student taking 15 units will pay $1,380 for the academic year, not counting additional charges such as for parking and health services, as well as books and other supplies, which can add about $1,650 to the bill.
Over at East Los Angeles College, Luz Gomez was enrolled in math and English but needed a few more classes for full-time status. She tried Monday to add a history class but won't know until Wednesday whether she got in. This is her third year at the Monterey Park campus, and she expressed frustration over the delay in earning her associate's degree in political science.
"It's the budget cuts," said Gomez, 20, who is hoping to transfer to UCLA. "It's hard to get into anything. But I'm going to keep trying because I don't want to wait another year."