During World War II, there was food rationing. In 2012, California's community college leaders are poised to approve education rationing for thousands of students.
The proposal is controversial, with many students and educators critical of a shakeout that could end free courses offered for generations, including classes such as music appreciation and memoir writing. Also squeezed out would be students who linger at college for years, sampling one class after another.
The problem is as basic as a butter shortage. Essential classes are in critically short supply as the state's economic crisis lumbers on. Last year, 137,000 students couldn't get into at least one class they needed, including first-year English and math. And many who are entitled to financial aid never apply for it because there aren't enough counselors to help them navigate the complex process.
60% dropout rate
The result is a dropout rate of 60 percent among students who expect to transfer to a four-year university or earn a vocational certificate, according to a 2010 study by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy in Sacramento.
Fixing the problem will require overhauling the vast community college system, according to a task force of 20 academics and college advocates who have wrestled with the issue for a year. Established by the Legislature in 2010, the Student Success Task Force wants campuses to do a better job of helping students reach academic goals, and it wants students to move more quickly and efficiently through school.
But it won't be done with more money. Lawmakers cut $502 million this year from the system's $5.9 billion budget, on top of hundreds of millions withheld since 2009.
Instead, the task force wants to change how colleges spend the money they already have. Or, as Chancellor Jack Scott plainly put it, "It's not joyful to have to ration."
The backbone of the panel's 22 recommendations is to focus community college resources on students seeking degrees or vocational certificates. All students should have an education plan and make steady progress on it. Those who don't would lose registration priority. Those who qualify for a tuition waiver – 47 percent of students – would lose it if they are unfocused and take too many random classes.
"The more directed a student is, the more likely they are to complete their goals," Scott said. "This is pretty common sense."
Many agree, including Steve Ngo, a City College of San Francisco trustee who calls it a civil rights issue.
"If students are not even getting basic English and math, they'll be stuck in poverty," Ngo said. "These recommendations focus course offerings on student needs."
Some may be shut out
Yet many others – including students, instructors, administrators and Ngo's colleagues on the City College board – fear the proposals would harm students who fall outside the new priorities.
"The door will shut for everyone else except for the two-year transfer students," said Joe Fitzgerald, a City College student and editor of the campus paper, the Guardsman.
Fitzgerald has been at the college seven years, many of them spent learning to be a successful student, he said. Like many others, he sees community college as an academic refuge for students who can't or prefer not to barrel through school.
Rather than ration education, he and other critics say college leaders should join efforts to raise more revenue for education.
"California needs to raise taxes on the wealthy and close tax loopholes," said John Rizzo, president of the City College Board of Trustees. "Oil (extraction) needs to be taxed like it is in every other state."
California's college system is the nation's largest, with 112 campuses and a mandate to admit "any student capable of benefiting from instruction," according to the state's Master Plan for Higher Education, established in 1960. Its main mission is to provide academic and vocational instruction "through the first two years of undergraduate education."
The plan also points to colleges' role in providing remedial classes, community service courses, workforce training and free, noncredit classes, including English as a Second Language.
Last spring, 203,500 students statewide took noncredit classes, and 1.5 million took classes for credit.
Fee waiver overhaul
Nearly half of students taking classes for credit are poor enough to qualify for a waiver of fees: $540 a semester for a full load of 15 credits, at $36 a credit. The price rises to $46 next summer.