Facing yawning budget gaps, California's public universities are shifting thousands of applicants into a community college system already swamped by newly unemployed adults and students priced out of other schools.
By holding down enrollment, the shift would help balance budgets at UC and CSU campuses. But officials say the move seems likely to worsen problems at the state's 110 two-year campuses, many of which already face budget shortfalls that have them chopping courses, laying off part-time faculty and cramming classrooms so full that students have to perch on windowsills.
"We hope to serve as many students as we can get in, but we're near the breaking point," said Jack Scott, statewide chancellor of the California community college system.
In particular, many educators fear that an influx of new students will further reduce the ability of many community colleges to prepare students for transfer to four-year schools. The more savvy newcomers may shove aside some of the existing 2.5 million community college students, who are struggling to work toward a university degree from the bargain-priced, but strained, two-year system, officials say.
The concerns are the more pressing because two-thirds of the state's college students, and most of the African Americans and Latinos, are at the two-year campuses.
Even before absorbing displaced university students, California's community colleges are projected to grow at least 4% this year, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office. A number of colleges say their enrollment may rise by up to 10%.
If students cannot get the classes they need to be eligible for transfer to a four-year college, they could become discouraged and drop out, educators worry. The San Diego Community College District, for instance, had almost 8,000 students on waiting lists for one or more classes before the current semester even began, said Lynn Neault, vice chancellor of student services.
The classroom glut, Neault said, is unprecedented.
Ophelia Walker, who recently returned to school to work on her registered nursing degree at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington, was surprised to find that every science course she needed was closed to new students.
"I'm not too old, but time is very valuable to me right now," Walker, 33, a Carson resident and licensed vocational nurse, said last week. "I don't need to waste it."
The reasons for community colleges' relatively low transfer rates are hotly debated. Two-year campuses serve many masters: returning adults, vocational education students, English learners, slackers trying to put off working and residents looking for a yoga class -- or a girlfriend. Not everybody plans to move on to a four-year college.
Community college officials say that 40% of students who are serious about transferring manage to do it. But the Public Policy Institute of California, in a 2006 study, found that only about 25% of the students who are focused on transferring actually make it.
For many students, trying to assemble transfer credits is like entering a looking-glass world where little is as it seems. Comp 101 might be a prerequisite for transferring to Cal Poly Pomona but not to Cal State Long Beach, a requirement for English majors but not rhetoric students, good enough for the Cal State system but not for UC, or vice versa.
In addition, the requirements for a student to earn an associate of arts degree and to be eligible to transfer to a four-year school are not necessarily interchangeable. And financial aid is yet another bewildering, highly bureaucratic, thicket.
"Students are enrolled in the wrong courses in order to transfer, they're taking courses without sufficient guidance and they don't know the process or calendar by which you get things accomplished," said Marc Cutright, director of the Center for Higher Education at the University of North Texas, who is also on the staff of a new institute there dedicated to the study of transfer students.
"It's a bureaucratic perfect storm," agreed Estela Mara Bensimon, director of USC's Center for Urban Education, who has studied community college transfers.
Many schools that do better at easing the university pathway have transfer centers and counseling staffs to help students navigate the maze of requirements. But counselors are in short supply at many community colleges, experts have found.
The faculty senate for the California Community Colleges recommends a ratio of 370 students for each counselor. The actual ratios run as high as 1,700 to 1, said USC education professor Alicia Dowd, who participated in the transfer study with Bensimon.
It's no coincidence that Santa Monica College, which has the highest UC transfer rates of any community college, also has one of the biggest counseling staffs, with 60 full-time and 40 part-time advisors, said Dan Nannini, coordinator of the college's transfer center.