California's budget crisis came into stark focus in the halls of Sacramento State last week, where many students returning for spring semester were turned away from classes they had hoped to get into, or strained from hallways to hear lectures in classes with more students than there were seats.
In Alpine Hall, a group of dejected seniors stood in the hall after being booted from a writing class they must take if they are to graduate in May. It was full, they weren't on the waiting list and the professor didn't let any extra students in.
Cody Watt, 23, stared at the floor in frustration and offered an observation on what he had hoped would be his final year of school: "Less classes. Less instructors. But more money."
It's a refrain California State University and University of California students are muttering at campuses up and down the state as they find themselves in the grips of a historic budget crunch. After state lawmakers cut UC and CSU budgets by 20 percent in 2009, student fees went up and course offerings went down.
CSU, Stanislaus, balanced its current budget with $13.5 million worth of spending cuts and fee increases. That was accomplished through staff and faculty furloughs, layoffs, and reduced class offerings and services.
The result is that many students in the CSU and UC systems can't get the classes they need to fulfill requirements or they find themselves in larger classes. Some freshmen and sophomores are leaving the universities in favor of community college. Some juniors and seniors are dropping minors and second majors or accepting that it's going to take them longer to graduate.
Classes cut but enrollment stable
With fees up 32 percent compared with last year — to nearly $5,000 a year at CSU and $11,000 a year at UC — some students are bitter at the thought of staying an extra semester to get a class they were planning to take now.
California State University, Sacramento, senior T.K. Lu said he's one writing class away from being able to graduate in May. He wants to get his bachelor's degree in criminal justice and start applying for jobs in law enforcement. But he can't get into that writing class.
"I guess I got to take it next semester and waste my money," said Lu, 25.
For the fall semester, CSU campuses cut class sections by 7 percent statewide compared with a year earlier and trimmed lecturer employment 17 percent. Student enrollment, by comparison, dropped just 1 percent during the same period.
Statewide figures for the spring term were not available last week, and campuses could provide only preliminary data. Compared with last spring, course sections this semester are down about 3 percent at San Francisco State, 7 percent at San Jose State and 21 percent at CSU, Chico, according to early counts.
The situation at Sacramento State isn't as bad. A last-minute infusion of stimulus funds allowed it to offer more spring classes than originally planned, said Joseph Sheley, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
"Were we not to have gotten that funding, a lot of our students would be in far more difficult straits," he said. "That funding was critical."
Even with the stimulus funds, Sacramento State is employing fewer lecturers and putting more students in each class.
Last week, a criminal justice class in Mariposa Hall was beyond capacity, with 48 students filling the chairs, a half-dozen more sitting on the floor, four standing in the doorway and nine clustered in the hall.
The professor lectured on community-oriented policing and restorative justice. He went over the syllabus, the exam schedule and his grading policy.
But the students outside could barely hear a word.
"I'm paying tuition," said junior Stayza Albrecht, 24. "I shouldn't have to sit in the hallway and not hear anything."
Professor Ernest Uwazie told her he would try to move the class to a larger room.
But that's not always possible, said William Vizzard, chairman of the criminal justice department, the biggest major on campus. "In most of the rooms, we are bumping up against the room's capacity," Vizzard said. "We weren't designed like Cal to have the 300- to 500-person lecture space."
He said he's had to cut back the number of course sections in his department by roughly 13 percent. Classes that used to have 45 students now have 60, he said. Classes that once had 60 students now have 75.
Not enough computers for students
The same thing is happening in the sociology department, said Professor Ellen Berg. Her department used to offer three sections of statistics but now offers two because it lost the lecturer who taught the third class.
So Berg's statistics classes, which used to have 25 students, now have 32. And because part of the course is held in a lab with 28 computers, she has more students than computers for them to use.
"A big part of being able to do statistics is being able to use computer applications," she said. "The computer portion is a big part of the class."
At Fresno State, senior Casey Morris is on the verge of dropping her minor in public relations because she's having so much difficulty getting classes.
"I would love to break into the business," said Morris, 24. "Having a PR minor would definitely help."
But the class she needs to fulfill the minor is full, and she can't afford $1,200 to take it in summer school. So Morris said she is likely to forgo the minor and graduate in May with a major in communications.
Underclassmen have less priority in signing up for classes, and some are wondering if it makes sense to stay at their university while working on general education requirements.
Bethany Wilson, 18, a freshman at San Francisco State, said her human biology class "was so crowded that people were spilling out into the hallway, and the teachers had to go out there and make the announcements twice."
Wilson, a Granite Bay High School grad, said she's starting to wonder if she wouldn't have been better off at a college in Oregon she had applied to.
"It's hard enough being a freshman who never lived away from home. But now I'm wondering if I made the right choice," Wilson said. "My family is spending all this money, and I'm not even sure."
Casey Temple, 20, decided CSU wasn't worthwhile during her second year at Sonoma State. The fall term was largely a waste, she said, because she couldn't get the classes she needed and wound up in classes that didn't satisfy her graduation requirements.
"It wasn't cost-efficient for me to be there," Temple said.
In December, she moved back to her mom's house in Davis and enrolled at Sacramento City College, where tuition is a fraction of the price and she can save on living expenses. Temple is hoping to transfer to Cal Poly or UC Davis in a year and a half.
"I was paying all this money to go to school and not get the classes I needed to graduate in four or five years," she said. "I didn't want to be paying all that money if I couldn't get my classes."