At Santa Rosa Junior College, the number of female students has been fast declining.

Women still make up most of the student body, as they have for decades. But their ranks have dwindled at a faster rate than male classmates as tough times and class cuts reduce their enrollment.

From fall 2008 to fall 2011, the number of women taking at least one class through the college dropped 24 percent, double the decrease in male students, a trend that administrators can't totally explain.

A large portion of the drop clearly stems from wholesale cuts to non-credit offerings, especially the older-adult program, which drew far more women than men to classes such as memoir writing and watercolor painting, said Mary Kay Rudolph, SRJC's vice president of academic affairs.

To save money, SRJC slashed the program from more than 300 classes in 2009 to fewer than 20 this fall, a move that precipitated a 54 percent drop in non-credit students, most of them women.

But Rudolph said it's harder to explain the gender difference in credit classes. From fall 2008 to fall 2011, the number of female credit students dropped by 15 percent, to 12,935, according to the school's Office of Institutional Research.

Male enrollment in the same category dropped just 6 percent, to 10,796.

"We have a lot of guesses, but we need to get to the bottom of it," Rudolph said.

SRJC officials aren't the only ones scratching their heads at the issue. Last month, the California Budget Project, an independent think tank, presented a report to a joint legislative committee in Sacramento detailing ways the struggling economy has hurt women.

Across the state, the report noted, total community college enrollment, including credit and non-credit classes, dropped by nearly 130,000 to 1.75 million from 2007-2008 to 2010-2011, with women accounting for more than 80 percent of the drop.

Total enrollment decreased by 7 percent for women, compared with 2 percent for men.

"This is something that should be of great concern to policy makers," said Jean Ross, California Budget Project's executive director. "It deserves closer scrutiny."

Officials with the community college system cite several factors, including targeted cuts to enrichment classes, high school students taking college classes and students who take one or two courses -- all consequences of the system's new focus of its core academic mission.

During the same three-year period, the number of full-time female students increased 9 percent, they said.

Still, Joel Gordon, SRJC's dean of childhood development, sees signs of economic factors at play in SRJC's dropping female enrollment.

For about 20 years, SRJC's on-campus preschool served 115 to 120 families, mostly headed by single moms, such as Reyvon Hill, 32, whose soon-to-be 4-year-old son has a place to go while she pursues a degree in clinical social work.

She said the child care has been vital in allowing her to focus on her schooling.

This fall, however, the number of families at the preschool dropped to about 90 families as a result of state cuts that limited the number of preschool spots and could fall far further under Gov. Jerry Brown's current budget proposal, Gordon said.

The problem extends beyond SRJC's preschool. Melanie Dodson, executive director of Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, said her agency has experienced a 21 percent reduction in state funds since 2008.

The result has been a reduced ability to serve children at its 11 day care centers. From January 2011 to January 2012, the number of families sending kids to preschool fell from 1,740 to 1,326, a 24 percent drop.

"I don't have any problem saying when you cut child care you end up hurting women who are in the workforce or are going to college," Gordon said.

KC Greaney, SRJC's director of institutional research, suspects the decline in female enrollment correlates with cuts to programs that are particularly popular with women.

The decline has been dramatic, she said, but the college is now closer to the statewide percentage of female enrollment after years of having a greater share of women than normal.

Last spring, women made up 53 percent of SRJC's total population compared to 52.3 percent across the state community college system, according to SRJC's figures.

You can reach Staff Writer Sam Scott at 521-5431 or Sam.scott@pressdemocrat.com.