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Merced College reports 9% jump in student headcount

At the end of the first week of the spring 2009 semester, Merced College reported a 9 percent increase in student headcount for credit classes — nearly 600 more students than the spring 2008 semester.

And, according to college officials, it shows.

Classrooms are filled to capacity. Students wait in long lines for services. Counselors have barely a moment to breathe before the next student knocks on their door.

“We are working overtime to handle the numbers of financial aid applications right now,” said Diana Butts, financial aid coordinator. “Our goal is to shorten the time it takes to process student financial aid applications.”

With its headcount now at 10,058 students, Merced College is struggling to deliver services without appropriate funding from the state. Currently, the college is underfunded by $1,598,000, which means that the state is not providing funding for 350 students.

That means the college probably won’t hire more instructors to teach additional course sections. And, that means fewer available classes for students.

“We are not adding classes because of the budget situation,” said Marianne Tortoricci, vice president of Instruction. “However, our instructors are allowing more students in their classes, and when possible, we have moved classes to larger rooms to accommodate more students.”

Tortorrici also noted that no new faculty positions have been created, although the college is filling those teaching slots that have come open through faculty retirements or resignations.

The state's continuing budget stalemate is also making it hard for the college to plan for necessary services in non-instructional area, officials said.

“We’re unable to accurately plan for the remainder of this semester, as well as for next year,” said Dr. Anne Newins, vice president for Student Services. “I'm especially concerned about proposals to reduce financial aid and other support structures for our students, many of whom are out of work or who have had their work hours reduced.”

Unlike the University of California and the California State University systems, which have already announced large enrollment cuts, community colleges are chartered with an “open-door policy,” which prevents them from turning away qualified students.

While the UC and CSU systems can manage budget cuts by reducing student enrollment, community colleges are mandated to serve all students — regardless of whether a budget exists for them.

However, Merced College officials noted, when new course sections can’t be added to the semester schedule, the effect is the same — students will have less opportunity to complete their education.

“We’re going to do what we’ve always done,” said Merced College President Dr. Benjamin T. Duran, “and that is to teach students who want to learn. That’s our job, and we’re going to do that to the best of our ability.”