Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Economy Threatens to Derail College Dreams



California's money problems are forcing public universities and colleges to turn away hundreds of thousands of students this year just when the number of applications is at an all time high.

KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis looks at how the economy is making it difficult for students to get the higher education they want. It's the FIRST part of our series Rough Water: Navigating San Diego's economy.

Step on the campus of any community college in San Diego County, and you're bound to find someone like John Bethune.

Bethune: Well I got laid off at the end of December. So I'm unemployed, I might as well go back to school.

And back to school for John is at San Diego Mesa College. John was a forklift operator. Now, at 38 years old, he's finds himself out of the warehouse and into a college classroom. John wants to be a radiology technician because he says working the forklift wasn't paying the bills.

Bethune: Well the healthcare system, health care in general, is always hiring people. Its wide open, unless our economy takes a big dump. (laughs) Then I might not have a job. But yeah, the pay scale is astronomical.

And so is the number of students trying to secure classes in San Diego County's community colleges.

Midyear budget cuts combined with reductions in property-tax revenues have forced these campuses to lay off faculty members, cut courses, and cap enrollment.

Hundreds of students are on waiting lists in hopes of squeezing into a class.

The timing couldn't be worse for community colleges. They're trying to take in a flood of laid-off workers who want to upgrade their job skills. They're also absorbing students turned away from the California State University and University of California campuses.

Fred Galloway studies the economics of higher education at the University of San Diego. He says its not just amount demand.

Galloway: From an institution's perspective they're getting hit by three things: shrinking endowment, fewer contributions, and a bigger payout to students. So frankly its a nightmare for institutions. 


Sounds of a community college classroom  

Professor: Okay, let's do the old fashion roll. Robin?

Student: Here.

Professor: John?

Student: Here.

Winnie Khalil teaches a beginning level healthcare class at San Diego Mesa College. Her classes are bursting at the seams.

Khalil says her classes have up to 55 students this semester. The cap is 40.

Khalil: You do what your conscience tells you and you do what the fire marshall tells you. 10(6) It's a terrible thing. I have notes stuck under my door and little letters I have to have this class…and I can't do it. There's is no physical way to do it now because every seat is filled. And how would you feel in a class of 55?

State education officials worry more and more students will give up on their college dreams because of the lack of resources and space.

Jack O'Connell is California's Superintendent of Public Instruciton. He blames state lawmakers for not making education a top funding priority in good times. He says the society at large will suffer.

O'Connell: Look, we know that other countries can produce cheaper goods. But what we cannot give ground on is that we build better products, we have cutting edge, we're going to find solutions to healthcare, environmental problems. Those cures have to come from California. From our outstanding university system.

And O'Connell says the more education a person has, the better his or her life will be. And that's exactly what 48-year-old returning community college student Lori Payton wants to have.

Payton: That's what I want, I just want to get out there and I want to work. And I'm hoping two years here will be enough. At my age….in two years I'll be 50, most people are looking at retirement and I will just be getting started.

President Obama's federal economic stimulus package offers a glimmer of hope for California colleges and universities. The measure gives California billions of dollars to help 'backfill' recent cuts made to higher education. But education officials warn that's only a temporary fix.

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News. 

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.