When it came time to enroll for his community college courses for this year, Rich Copenhagen didn't have the money. So, like many students, he waited. By the time he could enroll, he was "wait-listed" - on the list of students who might get into the class if someone drops.
"It was a little bit terrifying when I was trying to register for classes," said Copenhagen, 22, who is president of the Student Senate for the California Community Colleges. "Everything has got the yellow warning sign that it’s 'wait-listed' and everything else is closed."
Copenhagen got his classes, but many students don't.
After repeated rounds of state budget cuts, colleges have had to reduce course offerings - shutting out more students.
In the academic years from 2008 to 2011, community college enrollment dropped by 500,000 students, said Paige Marlatt Dorr, a system spokeswoman. Last year, California's community colleges had to turn away 200,000 students who could't get into a single course, she said.
But that may change.
The California Community Colleges' Board of Governors has voted to adopt a major system-wide change to student enrollment. The new policy, approved by the governing board at a meeting in San Diego this week, gives enrollment priority to transfer students and students working toward a degree or certificate.
The change is a departure from the "all-comers" open enrollment philosophy that welcomed avocational or hobbyist students to the world's largest higher education system. California community colleges serve about 2.4 million students at 112 campuses.
"We cannot provide the funding to be all things to all comers that we used to do," said Paul Feist, a spokesman for the California Community Colleges' Chancellor's Office.
The new enrollment policy favors students who've gone through a college orientation and have developed an education plan, as well as continuing students in good standing.
After 100 units, far above what is needed for an associate degree, students lose their enrollment priority.
Students can exceed the cap and maintain priority in certain "high-unit" majors, or if they're returning to school to pursue a new career.
The system will also institute an appeals process for those who are denied enrollment priority, Feist said.
The new policy begins in fall 2014, but many details still must be worked out.
For example, the new policy doesn't define "education plan." The need for such a plan also underscores the need for counselors to help develop them at a time when most community colleges have cut back their counseling staffs.
Even at the more robust counseling departments, such as Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento, the counselor to student ratio is 900 to 1, Marlatt Dorr said. The average ratio systemwide is 2,000 to 1, she said.
Copenhagen said figuring out how to put the changes into effect given is "very challenging." A committee trying to come up with the best ways to do it.
"We struggle with it because it requires districts and colleges to have the resources available to take every single new student through these matriculation processes," Copenhagen said.
Another issue is how to provide academic counselors to students who work during the day and take classes at night.
"There are equity issues that come up whenever we're doing these kind of regulatory changes," Copenhagen said. "So as this gets implemented that will be something that the Student Senate is focusing on very closely."
Copenhagen said the committee will look at how community colleges can offer counseling and academic advising services that go beyond full-time counselors.
"There are some people that say everybody can just do it online and call it a day," Copenhagen said. "We don't really agree with that. The best way that we're going to be able to solve this issue is to come up with different ways that students can go about this."
The new enrollment policy is one of the 22 reforms recommended by the Student Success Task Force, which produced a plan to streamline the path to student graduation, certification and transfers within the system. That plan was approved by the Board of Governors in January.
Last month, state lawmakers passed a measure that addresses the portions of reforms that require statutory changes.