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US Community Colleges Feel Economic Pinch - 2003-06-07

As California's education system takes a big hit in the current budget crisis, the state's massive network of community colleges is taking some of the deepest cuts. But students and educators say that's exactly the opposite of what should be happening. When the economy goes bad, community colleges are often the best chance for laid-off workers to train for new jobs.

If the University of California is the thoroughbred of the state's higher education system, Community College is the draft horse. With nearly 3 million students, this collection of 108 two-year institutions is the largest higher education system in the world, with classes in everything from agriculture and auto mechanics to welding and zoology. And it's getting bigger.

"We are bursting at the seams," says Phil Day, Chancellor of City College of San Francisco. He says with the economy in such bad shape, the cuts couldn't come at a worse time. At a minimum, California's community colleges will lose more than $200 million in state funding. That means eliminating nearly 5,000 courses, about a 5 percent reduction.

But, as companies lay off workers on a daily basis, Mr. Day says more people are turning to these campuses to improve their job skills or study for new careers. "And that's generally true of community colleges in the state and across the country. And we always say, when the economy [gets bad], our enrollment goes [up]," he says.

Nowhere is that more evident than at the culinary arts school at City College. This cooking class in the industrial-size kitchen of City College's downtown campus is packed. Preparations are in full swing for the lunchtime crowd at the student-run restaurant, The Educated Palate. Many of these students are the newly unemployed.

Cindy Buccholz is standing at a metal counter chopping asparagus. The Taiwanese immigrant was widowed four years ago. She was laid off last year and has been working temporary jobs ever since. "This is a time gonna turn my life around because I always, always wanted to be a chef, when I was little. But I never had a chance of doing it," she says.

Community colleges give millions of people like Miz Buccholz a chance to turn their lives around. For others, who perhaps struggled in high school, they offer a second chance. Take, for example, J. Craig Venter, one of the most illustrious graduates of California's community colleges. "What I didn't know until my first semester was that I had academic ability," he says.

Mr. Venter barely squeaked through high school in the San Francisco suburb where he grew up in the 1960s spending more time surfing than studying. A tour of duty in Vietnam as a medic gave him a new perspective and he decided to become a doctor. But with his grades, the only school that would take him was a community college. So that's where he started. J. Craig Venter did become Dr. Venter, and went on to international renown for mapping the blueprint of life, the human genome. "I think most people have accepted the fact that we wouldn't have the human genome sequenced had I not done it," he says.

Now California's budget crisis threatens the education of future scientists, chefs, and others with untapped talents. Tuition is increasing by nearly two-thirds. Chancellor Day says, traditionally, the state has kept community college fees low just a fraction of what four-year schools charge and for good reason. "I've never been in a state where I've seen so many students living [so close to poverty]," he says.

State officials say times are hard for everyone and just about every publicly-funded program is taking a painful cut. Given that, Chancellor Day says community college will still be a good deal except for the tens of thousands of students who will no longer be able to afford it.