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Norma Valdez-Jimenez, head counselor at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, prepares for an onslaught of students during the start of the school year Jan. 23, 2008. Statewide, the student-to-counselor ratio is 1,900 to 1. (Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times)
The California community college system has grown unwieldy when it needs to be flexible.

Its 109 campuses and 2.6 million students make it the largest college system in the world, and its effects on California's economy and society are nearly immeasurable.

People attend community colleges to learn job skills. Whether it's fixing a car's radiator or stabilizing an intensive-care patient, community colleges often are the only formal training ground. But for this to remain the case, the schools need to overcome their staffing and technological shortcomings.

Some students with university plans look for an affordable alternative to the first two years of college. Now, short of counselors and with plenty of obstacles, those two years can easily become five or six, and some students never make it to a university.

More students than ever go to community colleges to learn to read, write and do basic math, skills they failed to learn in the increasingly beleaguered K-12 system. Playing a remedial role depends on the colleges solving their own formidable problems after years of neglect by state policymakers.

A failure to improve would have frightening implications. Most of today's Californians leave high school unprepared for college-level work, and that means they're not ready to help drive the economy.

In the next four days, the Times will examine the overwhelming challenges facing community colleges. Stories will explore links between vocational programs and California's economy, the obstacles that prevent students from transferring to universities and the startling math and English problems that have come to overload colleges.

The series will conclude with a look at the choices perplexing lawmakers, administrators and educators, and some solutions that might make a two-year education practical and meaningful.