When California State University announced recently that most campuses would accept applications for the 2011 spring term, Walter Michael briefly considered giving it a go.
Enrolling for the spring rather than the next fall would earn the community college student a bachelor's degree sooner and allow him to jump -tart his professional life.
But the Cal State announcement came with a caveat: Spring enrollment can only happen if the state budget — currently mired in disputes over how to close a $19-billion gap —restores millions of dollars in education funding for student services.
For Michael, who attends Sierra College near Sacramento, there were too many uncertainties.
"I realized with the budget situation, it's a little bit of a gamble for spring," said Michael, 20, a business administration major who wants to attend Sacramento State. "It's going to be very competitive, and you don't know how they will admit students or if they'll admit them at all. In the fall, they'll be accepting a lot more applications and it's a safer bet."
Cal State's 23 campuses typically enroll about 30,000 new students during the spring, most of them transfers like Michael. This year those students are in a bind, weighing whether to take a chance that state lawmakers will boost funding for higher education or resign themselves to postponing their degrees.
The application period for spring 2011 opened Aug. 1 and closes at the end of the month. Although campuses will process applications, no admittance will be granted until the state budget is approved. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for the university system includes restoring $305 million from previous cuts and adding $60.6 million to expand enrollment.
If the money doesn't come through, students will be refunded their application fees or can have their applications roll over to the fall term.
To address a $625-million budget hole last year, Cal State closed spring 2010 admissions systemwide. But officials wanted to be in a position this year to immediately begin enrollment — if they have the money.
"The governor in all of his public statements has made clear his priority for higher education and that he will not accept a budget from the Legislature that does not restore funding," said Allison Jones, Cal State's assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs. "We had to make a decision of do we get students in the pipeline and ready to go."
Both university and community college officials acknowledged that the unpredictable budget process creates a dilemma for students.
Community college students, for example, can transfer only 60 credits to Cal State or UC campuses. So if they remain at community college beyond 60 credits, they could be paying for unnecessary courses while taking up space for new students.
"It's prohibitively disruptive to transfer students because they're spending money on classes they're not going to be able to take with them," Jones said. "It delays them getting into the workforce so that they can contribute and add revenue to the state. Everything grinds to a halt."
Alex Pader, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, said he sees more positives than negatives in Cal State's spring application, plan but he still believes students are taking a gamble.
"If you have children or a job, if there's no guarantee you'll get in, you really can't plan and make accommodations to fulfill your obligations," said Pader, a student at American River College in Sacramento.
Like the University of California and Cal State, community colleges have suffered funding cutbacks that have slashed course offerings and forced other cost-cutting measures. Meanwhile, demand has increased from an influx of students unable to get into UC and Cal State, veterans and those who have lost jobs or seek to change careers.
Delainey Taylor, a student at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, already has 70 units of coursework and a 3.0 GPA but was rejected when she applied to San Diego State last fall. She only recently learned about the possibility of applying to Cal State for spring 2011 but said she felt is was too late and would be a waste of time to consider.
Instead, the early childhood education major will return to Saddleback and plans to take Spanish, speed reading, spinning, kinesiology and other classes to bump up her GPA and "fill my time."
"I think I'm going to spread out my applications to more campuses and hope I get accepted," said Taylor, who wants to be an elementary school teacher. "It's really hard to plan for the future when you don't know what school you're going to or how much to plan for tuition. Right now, I have to have a Plan A, B and C."
Community college counselors said they can barely keep up with shifting requirements and deadlines imposed on students.
Saddleback College recently sent a mass e-mail about spring applications for Cal State to more than 9,000 students eligible for transfer.
"It's good for students, but trying to alert my colleagues and those students who you told in May or June that there wasn't going to be a spring enrollment that now things are different, it's hard," said Miki Mikolajczak, a counselor and the transfer center coordinator.
Students have to be far more aware and engaged in pushing their education agenda, Mikolajczak and other counselors said.
"For students, it's a constant state of flux," said Cheryl Armstrong, Los Angeles City College transfer center director. "We understand there's a budget crisis but when you think about the goal of the academic process, it's really an unfortunate situation."