Ask Terry Kelly why he drives three days a week from Riverside to attend Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley, and he'll tell you it's computer programming.
"The way I look at it, if you want a drink, you have to go to where the water is," Kelly said. "The four-year universities I looked at didn't have the programming. . . . Coastline was one of the only ones that had anything in place whatsoever."
An array of technical and academic offerings, low tuition and cutbacks at state universities have combined to boost the enrollment of Coastline and other two-year colleges statewide. In Orange County this fall, eight community colleges have enrolled a record 160,000 students.
The increased popularity of these schools also spotlights a low-profile but vital part of California's higher-education system.
Once thought of as a mere continuation of high school, community colleges are no longer populated by students who haven't good enough grades, lack direction or are short of money for high-priced universities.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 29, 1991 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Column 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Coastline--A story Sunday on community colleges incorrectly identified Coastline Community College student Terry Kelly's field of study. He is a telecommunications management major.
In reality, community colleges are training most of Orange County's computer technicians, firefighters and law enforcement officers, morticians and some health care professionals, as well as legions of other students starting their way toward bachelor's degrees.
And, while coping with state budget cuts, the eight schools in Orange County have also managed to hold on to their unique programs and personalities, and they boast of many prominent alumni. Actress Diane Keaton went to both Rancho Santiago College and Orange Coast College; former First Lady Pat Nixon attended Fullerton College, and Olympic swimmer Shirley Babashoff was once at Golden West College.
At a maximum of $120 a year, community colleges are "the best bargain in the world," said Tom K. Harris Jr., chancellor of the North Orange County Community College District, which includes Fullerton and Cypress colleges.
But the state budget crisis has made courses harder to get this fall at local campuses, and educators fear their mission as the widest gateway to higher education and upward socioeconomic mobility is in jeopardy.
"Unless the economy in California turns around, we're in deep trouble," predicted Isaac Guzman, counselor and co-director of the transfer center at Santa Ana's Rancho Santiago College, where fall enrollment rose 11% to more than 27,600 students. "Because once you stop giving us the money to pay instructors and open classrooms for the students coming to us, we're going to have to cut classes."
That is counterproductive, say educators, at a time when President Bush is calling for higher education standards.
"Without an education, you're going to be flipping hamburgers at Jack-in-the-Box or In-N-Out burgers," Guzman said.
Part of the crunch is blamed on the University of California and the California State University systems holding down enrollment and cutting courses as part of balancing their own slashed budgets. Another factor is the recession, which is fueling a "return-to-school" mentality as people who have lost jobs--or fear they might--seek new or improved skills.
Beyond that, educators say state funding for the 107-campus community college system has lagged behind inflation and population growth, resulting in each community college having to teach more students with a declining share of the state budget pie.
But if they sometimes sound like the Rodney Dangerfields of education, unappreciated and taken for granted, community college officials are convinced that what they offer is vital to individuals and society, in fact to the very health of the economy.
Ivan Velev, a political refugee from Bulgaria now living in Costa Mesa, would agree. Long ago, the 50-year-old Velev earned advanced college degrees in engineering in Sofia, Bulgaria. Today, the highest post the former electrical design engineer can find is as a machine maintenance operator because of his poor English.
In his third semester of English language classes, Velev now attends Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa four nights a week to achieve his dream: to resume his career as an electrical design engineer in this country.
"In Bulgaria, the schools are free," said Velev, who was laid off from his job at an Irvine aerospace supply firm two months ago, thanks largely to cutbacks in defense spending. "But here, I can get any class I need. It is not so hard for me."
Velev's classmate, Moroccan-born Vietnamese refugee Mai Tuyen X., was a veterinarian in Vietnam before he fled the Communist regime several years ago. He, too, cannot begin to resume his profession until he can speak better English and verify his educational credentials from Saigon University for U.S. authorities.
"I don't know when I can be veterinarian again, because I have to get this English," the 35-year-old Mai, who now stacks merchandise for a Target store, said during a break in the reading class he shares with Velev and 22 other recent immigrants. "It is very difficult for me."