Click photo to enlarge
Laney College cosmetology students march with fellow students from the college to Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, March, 1, 2012. This was part of a Day of Action to defend the right to an education. (Dan Honda/Staff)

Ever since 1960, California's community colleges have been required to admit any state resident 18 years or older who has a high school diploma or the equivalent.

It doesn't matter if an applicant has a 1.0 or a 3.0 GPA. There is no requirement that he or she submit SAT scores. No personal essay, letters of recommendation or laundry list of extracurricular activities.

The idea behind California's Master Plan for Higher Education--signed into law by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. -- was that a college education should be accessible to everyone.

The good thing was since pretty much anyone could get in, people who were motivated but couldn't afford a four-year school could take courses at community college and later transfer into the CSU or UC systems. Many were the first in their families to be able to pursue a college degree. Immigrants could come to community college to learn English. The schools offered remedial skills to students who had been awarded diplomas from California public high schools without being able to read or write at anything remotely resembling college level. There were vocational courses, certificate and associate degree programs. Then, there was the fun stuff for lifelong learners like painting, language and exercise classes. Seniors often got to go for free.

The bad thing was, anyone could get in.

A few years ago, I taught a beginning news writing class at Laney College in Oakland for two semesters. Very few of my students showed up regularly or turned in assignments. I couldn't figure out why a number of them had even bothered to enroll. Earlier this year, I signed up for a video production class, also at Laney.

There were half a dozen young men who sat in the back of the room, loudly disrupting the professor's lecture, week in and week out.

Again, I wondered, why are these people here taking up valuable space?

There are students like these who go from class to class with no goal in mind.

Meanwhile, students who are trying to get their act together can't get into the classes they need to graduate or transfer because they're full.

In the 2009-2010 academic year, 133,000 entering students found themselves in that boat.

Community colleges still can't reject applicants. But if a student can't get into any of the classes he needs, it's the same as being turned away.

Over the past four years, state budget cuts have ravaged California's community colleges to the tune of $809 million.

There are 24 percent fewer classes systemwide and nearly 500,000 fewer students -- 2.4 million currently.

Meanwhile, demand has never been greater with so many people out of work and seeking retraining.

There has been a push in recent years to hold community colleges accountable for student progress and to weed out individuals who are not seriously pursuing any kind of degree or certificate.

The Board of Governors, which oversees California's community colleges, decided earlier this month to start rationing classroom seats.

Starting in 2014, priority registration will be given to two groups:

1) incoming students who have completed an academic assessment and have an education plan for earning enough credits to transfer to a four-year-college or university, getting a vocational degree or learning English. 2) Returning students with no more than 60 credits.

Veterans, active-duty military personnel and foster youth move to the front of the list, followed by low-income and disabled students.

Lifelong learners move to the bottom of the list.

The mantra now is getting students through the system as quickly as possible.

Gov. Jerry Brown faces a very different set of circumstances than his father.

Senate Bill 1456, which is now on his desk, requires, among other things, that students make academic progress in order to be eligible for a fee waiver and that students to be assessed and develop an education plan.

One thing is for sure. The old days of being able to hang out and find yourself at community college until you figure out what to do next are over.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/Tammerlin