Michael Cash backs his black Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R into the last parking spot along a row of motorcycles at Miramar Community College in San Diego. It’s about 9 a.m. as he walks to nearby Building H to help decorate for a surprise birthday party for a classmate in his conversational Spanish class. When this class ends a little after 11, Cash will hop on his motorcycle for the 17 mile ride to San Diego City College where he takes American History followed by a student government meeting, which he heads.
And that’s just Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays and Wednesdays he adds Mesa Community College to the mix for a school day that runs from 8 in the morning to 10 at night.
After five years active duty in the Army, and another five as a contractor for the Department of Defense in Iraq, Cash had saved enough money for four years of college when he returned to U.S. soil. In order to stay within his budget, he joined the growing ranks of community college swirlers, students enrolled in two or more community colleges in order to get the classes they need.
This wasn’t what Cash expected when he enrolled in San Diego City College at the beginning of 2010.
“Being a new student, I was put at the bottom of the registration line. I was wait listed for every class I wanted, and almost didn’t get any classes,” said Cash. “I just crashed classes to try to get anything I could.”
That means he just showed up on the first day of class, and every other day for the next two weeks, hoping that someone who was actually registered for the class wouldn’t show up so he could get their spot. Not every wait-listed student has the discipline to keep coming back day after day with no guarantee, but Cash’s persistence paid off.
But the following semester when two of the classes he needed overlapped, Cash became the student version of freeway flyers, community college adjunct faculty who race from school to school to cobble together a full-time course load.
As course sections drop, swirlers arise
Swirling isn’t a new phenomena, but it’s gaining converts as budget cuts force community colleges to slash courses and courses sections. Between 1992 and 2010, the
number of students on the move doubled from 108,000 to nearly 217,000, representing nearly 10 percent of all community college students.
“I know several people that are going to at least two if not three campuses,” said Cash. “It is definitely not uncommon to see the same people at different campuses.”
In fact, the birthday girl in his Spanish class is on that track. Shaneeka Thomas estimates she spends about $85 a week on gas driving to two campuses and her job. In an ideal world, she says, all her classes would be at the same place, the campus closest to her home. But, as an older, returning student – the surprise party marked her 30th birthday – Thomas says she has a different perspective on college.
“So, am I happy that I’m here now? Yes, because my teacher is pretty cool and my classmates are great,” said Thomas. “But at the same time, I’m a part-time employed student, so the gas and the time that it takes to come here twice a week, it drains my budget significantly.”
Their Spanish professor, Virginia Naters, says she can see the weight of the stress in some of her students who are desperate to get into required classes and prerequisites so they won’t have to wait another semester or two before they’re offered again.
“Sometimes I get students that show up at the wrong college the first week of school because Mesa and Miramar they both start with ‘M’, so they come here and they’re like, ‘I’m enrolled’, and I say, ‘You’re not enrolled.’ And then they realize, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m enrolled at Mesa.’”
Squeezed for cash and space
In the early days of the budget shortfall, San Diego City College officials tried to keep the cuts as far away from the students as possible, said Vice President of Instruction Mary Benard. But after four years and more than $2 million in reductions, she said they’re at the bone. The college lopped off nearly 30% of its course sections and eliminated summer school after determining that it was primarily serving University of California and California State University students who wanted to get required courses out of the way on the cheap.
The cuts also hit schools in a more subtle way. Even though the master plan for community colleges requires them to take virtually every student that applies, the state legislature capped enrollment at 1.1 million full-time equivalent students (FTES). That doesn’t mean they’re turning away students, it means they’re not getting funded for all the students they enroll. In 2010-11, the community college system had 41,000 unfunded FTES, which translates to about 92,000 students.
It’s not just the money, either. When classes were cut, so were the adjunct faculty who taught them, forcing schools to pare down even more, creating even more of a no-win situation for students. While some professors wouldn’t budge on class size, forcing students to wait or swirl, others let in too many.
Cash had one class with 50 students – better than a 500-student lecture hall, but not even close to the mission of keeping class sizes low. It was so packed, said Cash, that the professor only let each student speak once per class.
For the past few weeks, and for a few more to go, the Student Success Task Force on California Community Colleges will be pitching its 73-page plan to the public, parents, business leaders, and faculty. The recommendations call for some dramatic shifts in the culture of the state’s community colleges to create more space in the classrooms and to help fill a gap of 1 million college degrees that researchers say California will need by 2025.
It hasn’t been a smooth ride for the recommendations. The Community College Academic Senate and administrators, including Mary Benard, have some concerns, but also say something has to change.
“We need to revisit our mission,” said Benard. “We just can’t be all things to all people.”