Professor Rodrigo Palacios had never taught more than 35 students in a class. But this term, enrollment in his introductory Spanish course at Los Angeles Trade Technical College leapt to about 55.
"People get frustrated because I don't have time for everyone," said Palacios, a 20-year veteran of the community college.
One of his students, David Biagas, 21, who needs the course to transfer to a bachelor's program at Cal State Los Angeles, said he is forced to turn to his classmates for help. Otherwise "it would be difficult to grasp some of the concepts."
The sour economy and the boom in the college-age population have hit California's higher education system hardest at its port of entry: its network of 108 community colleges, renowned for their number and bargain price. Even before the dimensions of the state budget crisis were known, these schools were turning away students, cutting some courses and overloading others to compensate.
The pain is about to spread.
Under Gov. Gray Davis' proposal to close a budget gap he estimates at $34.6 billion, the cost of a community college education would more than double, from $11 to $24 a unit. That could generate enough sticker shock to keep some low-income and immigrant students from re-enrolling or even applying, educators say.
Fees also would rise in the more expensive and selective California State University and University of California systems. Higher education analysts fear a replay of the early 1990s, when cost increases at two-year and four-year schools caused enrollment to dip by 217,000, or 12%.
Under the Davis administration's budget proposal for next year, system fees for resident undergraduates studying full-time at Cal State campuses would rise to $1,968. Combined with a mid-year increase passed in December, that would amount to an increase of 38% over two years.
In the UC system, systemwide fees for resident undergraduates studying full time would rise to $4,629, an overall 35% increase when combined with a UC hike passed last month. In many cases, financial aid would cover the increases for students from families with annual incomes below $60,000, officials said.
More fee increases are likely. Higher education is "one of the few places where they can increase prices and generate significant revenue, " said Michael A. Shires, an assistant professor of public policy at Pepperdine University who has researched higher education issues.
Though proposed cutbacks at the four-year schools mostly spare the classroom -- for now -- they are expected to whittle away at tutoring, counseling, health programs, libraries, research operations and professional development programs for teachers. At Cal State campuses, class sizes are expected to rise slightly; and at UC schools, outreach efforts to minority students and recruitment of tenure-track faculty could suffer, campus leaders say.
At UCLA, plans already are underway to scale back work at the brain injury research center and to halt most mid-year training programs for K-12 teachers.
Some educators say that if the economic and enrollment pressures don't ease, California risks compromising a higher education system that is admired nationally for its quality and accessibility.
"The $64,000 question is now how much will it be harmed," said Travis J. Reindel, director of the state policy analysis for the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities.
History isn't the best guide, because "it's historically unprecedented to have to deal with increased demand of this magnitude at the same time as you're dealing with a bad economy," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose.
However, Callan said, "if we handle this recession in the business-as-usual way, the way we did in the early '90s, the damage is likely to be much greater."
During the first half of the decade, fees nearly quadrupled at community colleges, and they more than doubled for UC and Cal State students.
John D. Welty, president of Cal State Fresno since 1991, said it took his school half a decade to recover from the enrollment losses. He said the university also fell far behind in setting up computer labs, repairing buildings and stocking its library. "We have shortages in our library collections that we're still trying to improve."
Reindel agreed: "You're never able to totally erase the consequences of decisions like these."
Two factors could make matters worse this time. One is the vast size of the budget shortfall. The other is the bulge in the number of students reaching college age in the state, many of them from low-income minority families.
According to the latest forecast by the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the number of students seeking an education at a public college or university in California will jump to 2.71 million by 2010, capping a 12-year surge of 35.8%.