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It's becoming harder to get an education in California, even at community colleges

Students, teachers, and supporters demanded more education funding during the March 4 Day of Action

If tuition goes up to $40 per course unit at the community college where Dielly Diaz is working toward her associate of arts degree, she's not sure she'll be able to afford it. But Diaz isn't just worried about her own shot at an education. She also wonders what's in store for her 19-year-old daughter, a student at Laney Community College in Oakland. For parents scrambling in the face of the economic downturn even as their kids prepare for the future, she said, "it's like we're getting hit both ways."

Diaz, who is 39 and originally from Venezuela, says she decided to enter Berkeley City College's adult education program to earn her degree because the recession threw her into a precarious position, shaking the stability of her job as a mortgage loan officer. When she started just a year ago, tuition was $20 per course unit. It has since gone up to $26, and now the California Legislative Analyst's Office is recommending ratcheting it up to $40.

Even as students are being asked to shell out more, California's community colleges are reeling from the impacts of budget cuts: faculty layoffs, swelling class sizes, fewer available courses, and reductions in student services. For students hoping to transfer to other public institutions in the California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) systems — or even for those seeking to develop a skill set that can garner a living wage — maneuvering the shredded educational framework can be frustrating. This past year, roughly 250,000 students statewide were denied access to community colleges due to a lack of course availability, according to education advocacy group Against Cuts.

"When you see all that, it's like OK, I feel like I really need to do something," Diaz said. "It's not like we can just sit and wait, letting the cuts happen. I think we can really get organized."

Between school, work, and being a mom, Diaz started pitching in on community outreach for Against Cuts, a grassroots effort that took shape last fall in the wake of devastating education cutbacks. It was one of hundreds of organizations that collectively launched mass demonstrations decrying funding slashes to education on March 4. The newly energized education movement plans to propel another mass rally to descend on Sacramento in the fall, Diaz noted, in the meantime focusing on awareness-raising efforts like an April 17 teach-in at Berkeley City College.

California's community colleges are unique among the state's higher education institutions in that they represent a gateway for nontraditional students to get a foothold for career advancement or a fresh start for people trying to improve their lives. They also offer an affordable option to complete lower-division coursework before transferring, a path that's starting to become a bottleneck since courses needed to meet transfer requirements have been affected by cuts.

Yet even as fees climb and class sizes balloon, more people are opting to go the community college route, and demand for enrollment is only expected to increase. Some are college-age students whose families have been priced out of other institutions.

"We're having this flood of people from the CSUs and UCs now trying to do their freshmen and sophomore year with us and then transfer," notes Berkeley City College faculty member Joan Berezin. Others are individuals who can't find work in an economic climate marked by 12.5 percent unemployment. "When we get hog-tied and cut and restricted, we close off possibilities to everyone," Berezin says. "People who've just lost their jobs, people whose parents have lost their jobs, they're all coming to us."