Community college leaders are worried a California State University plan to turn away as many as 10,000 students next year could inundate two-year schools that already can't handle spiking enrollment.
Cal State trustees will discuss Wednesday whether to limit admissions more strictly than ever before. The 23-campus system simply won't be able to handle the 460,000 or so students it has now if state funds drop next year, Chancellor Charles Reed told reporters Monday.
"We cannot admit additional students without adequate resources," he said.
Reed said he hopes many of the students who are turned away will attend community colleges and transfer to a Cal State campus after completing their first two years of school.
But community colleges have their own severe problems, including droves of new students forced back to school by the economy at the same time the schools are dropping classes and student services.
If additional budget cuts are imposed next year, the system could be forced to turn away more than 250,000 students, said Diane Woodruff, chancellor of the 110-campus community college network. Taking on an additional 10,000 students would be nearly impossible, she said.
"We are at our breaking point already," Woodruff said in an interview. The state's community colleges serve about 2.7 million students. "We already are serving 100,000 students we're not being paid for."
The massive two-year college system was hit twice this year: 10 percent more students — the colleges were paid for only 2 percent growth — and a $290 million funding cut. The governor has proposed trimming $332 million more from the colleges in coming months.
Community colleges have prided themselves on their open enrollment, meaning nearly every Californian can attend. But the economic clouds have darkened that policy, and unemployed workers who once could count on community colleges for job training could be out of luck after instructors and courses are cut.
"You really can't expect them to take on more students," said John Douglass, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education. "You're going to find a lot of people wanting to enter higher education who can't, and it's just going to add to our economic problems."
That phenomenon is developing at colleges around the state. At Sacramento City College, for example, some academic departments are going to be smaller next year, meaning students won't be able to get the courses they need to graduate in time, said student Troy Carter, vice president of the statewide student senate.
"It's just going to be thousands of students competing for a few seats," he said. "It's slowing all of us down."
Cal State leaders said they have no choice but to hope community colleges can be their safety net. The university has sustained too many blows over the past two years to maintain the status quo, said Trustee William Hauck.
"There really are no more workarounds left," he said. With more cuts, "we will be diminishing the value of every degree that comes out of this system, and we will not do that."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.