These are not the choices college leaders signed up for: immigrants or retirees? Poor or rich? English classes or courses in car repair?

A series of tough years has forced California colleges and universities to slash budgets, in part by cutting back on the number of classes they offer. Nearly every campus has trimmed courses, and more cuts are planned for the summer and fall.

The lack of money puts administrators in a particularly difficult position, forcing them to decide which students get pushed off campus.

With unemployment and the number of high school graduates both hitting record levels, demand for higher education is at an all-time high. But California's two public university systems have cut enrollment, and community colleges expect a decline this year because students are unable to get the classes they need.

Unemployed workers "are trying to come back to school, and they know this is the place to do it," said McKinley Williams, president of Contra Costa College in San Pablo. "But we're having to turn them away."

The quandary comes down to priorities. Each school decides which programs are essential — and which ones must now be considered luxuries.

At most campuses, that strategy has eliminated classes with fewer than 20 students and electives that do not help students achieve degrees or certificates, such as courses on sports-related films, one such class proposed for elimination at Chico State.

"I don't think any (department) can get out unscathed," said James Houpis, who this month became provost at Cal State East Bay. "But there's still a wide breadth of courses available."


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UC Berkeley leaders said budget cuts have had a minimal effect on courses there, but the Cal State and community college systems have been less fortunate. Neither system could provide statistics on how many classes have been cut, but anecdotal evidence shows students have had serious problems getting the courses they need.

Standing room only

Nearly every class at Bay Area community colleges has been full this year, and most of those courses also have long waiting lists of students hoping to get in.

Students at Laney College "were standing up in classes; they were going to other classrooms to get desks," said Leonard Hutton, a student at the Oakland college. "This semester, we had people scrambling just to find add cards (to get into classes) because the school ran out."

The effects have been most noticeable at the state's 110 community colleges, which routinely are flooded by new students during tough economic times.

The state chancellor's office directed colleges to protect core classes — remedial, vocational and transfer-oriented courses — and to consider cutting recreational courses instead.

Those three core areas "need to take precedence over aqua aerobics or a cooking class," said Erik Skinner, the state's vice chancellor for fiscal policy. "We said, 'This is the right thing to do.' We think districts are taking heed."

Colleges generally give registration preference to continuing students, which means that incoming freshmen have more trouble finding classes when course sections get cut. Several school leaders said new students are having problems getting into science and math classes in particular.

The problems can be significantly more frustrating for students whose parents did not attend college or for those without a firm grasp of English, said Norma Valdez-Jimenez, a Contra Costa College counselor.

"The students who really suffer the most are the ones who are less savvy about maneuvering the system," she said.

"That's the majority of our students."

Three areas hit hardest

In many cases, the commitment to core classes has come at the expense of three areas: summer courses, "community education" programs and athletics.

Most colleges are cutting back dramatically on summer school. City College of San Francisco has canceled most summer classes, and other campuses are trimming their summer schedules by 20 to 50 percent.

"I think people are really going to feel it this summer," said Jim Wright, vice president for academic affairs at Fremont's Ohlone College, which will offer 142 fewer summer classes this year, and only at the school's Newark campus.

"For us, the fall and the spring semesters are really higher priorities than the summer."

Colleges also increasingly are deciding students should pay closer to the full costs of recreational courses, such as aerobics and swimming, and other electives seen more as luxuries than necessities. State subsidies keep the price of a three-unit course at $78 for most community college students, but more nonrequired classes than ever cost closer to $200.

And budget cuts have led many schools to reduce athletic funding. Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill announced this month it was suspending track, cross country and tennis, and Contra Costa College is requiring its teams to raise half of their funding.

Next year's budget could be worse for some colleges, which would lead to even fewer classes in the fall. Administrators and counselors worry the cutbacks will have lasting damage, particularly in low-income areas.

"If you're looking in our community, coming to college is life-changing," said Valdez-Jimenez, the Contra Costa College counselor. "If they show up and don't have access, that has ripple effects in the community."

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 925-943-8246. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattkrupnick.