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Waitlist Purgatory: 472,000 California Community College Students Don't Have Classes

Back-to-school time is turning out to be a nightmare at community colleges in the Golden State.

For a nation that has a goal of having 8 million more college graduates by 2020, we sure do make it tough for students to get an education. Community college students in California looking to gain some new job skills or get some general education credits out of the way before transferring to a four-year university are having to put their dreams on ice due to massive class waitlists. According to an informal survey by the California Community Chancellor’s Office a whopping 472,349 students are currently waitlisted.

How did California's community college system, the largest in the nation, get to this point? Three years of budget cuts have gutted more than $809 million from an already cash-strapped system. That means scores of faculty members have been laid off, resulting in axed course sections. The number of class sections available is down 24 percent from the 2008-2009 school year and remaining classes are jam-packed and have lengthy waitlists.

"There is no question that the system is shrinking in terms of the number of students we're serving but not shrinking in terms of demand," Chancellor Jack Scott told the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, across the system enrollment has dropped a full 17 percent, from 2.9 million students during the 2008-2009 school year to 2.4 million in 2011-2012. Since students know it's a nightmare to try to get into classes, they simply give up on trying to further their education. When they do stick with it, they're dealing with higher course fees, and the average wait time to see an academic or financial aid counselor on campus is 12 days.

Last year two state assembly members introduced a bill sponsored by two of the system's campuses that would've allowed students to pay more money for a class in order to get off a waitlist. The extra money would've covered the costs of adding additional course sections. Students vigorously protested the idea of two-tier system. Like many states, California's community college system tends to serve larger numbers of minority and low income students who are already struggling to pay for school. They—and their many supporters who remember an era of free- or low-cost higher education for all in California—balked at giving students with more financial resources at their disposal an enrollment advantage.

Every bit of data shows that students with some college or a college degree are more likely to be employed and earn more than their peers with just a high school diploma. If these students can never get on the college path because of these insane waitlists, they're pretty much being guaranteed a low income, minimum wage existence. "In the long run, it's going to be hurtful to the economy," said Scott. "These are the individuals who are going to make up the future workforce of California."

Depending on the outcome of the November 2012 state election, things could get a whole lot worse for the state's students. If Proposition 30, a proposal that would raise taxes on the state's wealthiest individuals in order to fund education doesn't pass, the system could be facing another $338 million cut in January. If that happens, California's community college students will surely find out what it's like to leave educational purgatory and enter hell.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Parker Michael Knight

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