Santa Monica College students walk down the main campus quad on their way to class Wednesday morning. Enrollment is up 8 percent, the increase caused by a cap on enrollment at state-run universities. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMC — As students return to campus for the first week of school, they might notice their classes are in what feels like tighter quarters.

That’s because enrollment has risen at Santa Monica College this semester by 8 percent, drawing in students turned away from the tapped out University of California and California State University systems and the recently unemployed looking to add on some extra credentials, all while cutting course sections.

“We’re taking in as many as we can but we’re basically full,” Dr. Chui Tsang, the president and superintendent of SMC, said.

SMC began its fall semester this week with approximately 200 — or 6 percent — fewer course sections, the result of about $6.6 million in funding cuts because of the state fiscal crisis. Another 6 percent in cuts is expected for the spring semester and the winter session is slated to be reduced by about half.

For students, that means more competition for courses and larger class sizes.

“I think this is as much as we can take,” Tsang said.

West Los Angeles College, which also recently began its fall semester, saw enrollment go up by 14 percent. Rebecca Tillberg, the dean of research and planning for West L.A., said she expects the figure will drop slightly after the first few weeks.

The increased enrollment is a trend that community colleges are experiencing across the country.

Schools in Indiana are seeing about 27.8 percent more students in the fall semester while colleges in Kentucky have welcomed about 11.2 percent more. Tidewater Community College in Virginia has reported a 25 percent increase and New River Community College in West Virginia has seen 35 percent more students, according to the National Association of Community Colleges.

The surge is typical of a economic downturn, George R. Boggs, the president and CEO of the association said.

“This time it was more dramatic than ever,” he said. “The colleges are doing the best they can to handle it given the public funding cuts they have been absorbing.”

He notes that the situation in California, home to the largest community college system in the country, is among the most dramatic.

While figures for the fall semester will not be available until October, Paige Marlatt-Dorr, the spokeswoman for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, said that enrollment went up by 4.9 percent in the 2008-09 school year and was expected to surge again this year.

“What we are seeing is a great deal of our colleges are at capacity already and students are experiencing a longer wait list, larger class sizes and course sections being cut,” Marlatt-Dorr said.

The cuts at SMC fall well below reductions at other nearby schools — Cerritos College slashed its offerings by 21 percent; Long Beach City College by 12 percent and the San Diego Community College District by 600 classes, turning away 18,000 students.

The chancellor’s office is directing the community colleges with the smaller budgets to allocate money toward core programs, which focuses on career technical education, basic skills and university transfer.

“It’s exacerbated here because California is in a worse situation than a lot of other states financially and the unemployment rate is higher than in other states,” she said.

Tsang said he doesn’t expect to see relief any time soon and expects the enrollment trend to continue over the next several semesters.

He added that some faculty members have taken in more students in their already impacted courses because of the strong demand.

“We just have to do a little bit more with less right now,” Tsang said.

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