At Santa Rosa Junior College, the early days of math class can come with some hard lessons in economics — or least in the realities of supply and demand.
Instructor John Martin often begins courses with lotteries to decide who in the overflow of students gets the final few spots freed up by no-shows.
One section filled so quickly this semester that six weeks before school resumed he started getting e-mail requests seeking entry to the closed class.
"There was like an avalanche the first week of December of students that wanted to add my Math 1A," said Martin, a three-decade veteran of the school.
It doesn't take calculus, though, to figure that such scenarios are all but certain to increase next year. This week SRJC President Robert Agrella sent out a campus-wide e-mail to outline the school's "grim" outlook ahead of projected cuts to state community college funding.
In the best scenario, SRJC may escape with a $4.9 million cut, approximately 5 percent of its budget, according to Agrella's e-mail. In the worst, it could lose more that $13 million.
In either case, the school soon will be taking a knife to its class catalogue just two years after it reduced sections by 10 percent. The current projection is for roughly another 10 percent cut.
"It's not a question of whether course sections will be reduced, but rather a question of which ones," Agrella said.
For students, the resulting squeeze is likely to come from two directions. Not only will there be fewer classes, there may be more competitors seeking them as both the California State University system and the University of California face possible enrollment reductions because of their own budget woes.
The dilemma is prompting a hard look at how community colleges across the state set enrollment priorities. Unlike four-year institutions, community colleges are open to all; they just give different students different priority. Those in the back of the line can get slim pickings indeed.
Last week, the Legislative Analyst's Office, a non-partisan governmental agency providing policy information to state leaders, issued a report recommending overhauling that process to better meet the system's goals.
It called for giving early registration to new students who go through counseling and other matriculation services — thus giving focused students a leg up. At the same time, it would push returning students who are not making academic progress down the priority ladder.
The report also recommends making school much more expensive for students who accumulate credits well above the 60 generally required to transfer or earn an associate's degree.
According to the report, students with more than 100 units should have to pay the full, non-subsidized cost of attending class, an amount that could be seven times the $26/unit that students now pay.
In 2009-2010, 78,000 students with more than 100 units took classes at California community colleges, including nearly 1,500 at SRJC.
The move to charge them full freight could slash the equivalent of 38,000 full-time students from the system, saving the state as much as $175 million, the report claims.
"We are proposing to target reductions in a way that protects the highest priorities in the system," said Paul Steenhausen, who crafted the report for the LAO.
Assemblywomen Susan Bonilla, chairwoman of the Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, said she wants to hear from educators and colleges before going further on the LAO proposal. But the Concord Democrat said some steps to curtail enrollment are inevitable.