The historically wide-open doors of California's community college system will be merely ajar beginning in 2014, when enrollment priority will go to students with clear academic or vocational goals.
By contrast, students who linger at college for years, sampling classes, finding themselves or simply enjoying free, noncredit enrichment classes, will go to the back of the priority line and could be shut out altogether if there aren't enough classes or instructors for everyone.
On Monday in San Diego, the Board of Governors' unanimous decision to ration college access officially shifted the system away from the practice of college for all that has been part of Californians' consciousness - and the state's Master Plan for Higher Education - for generations.
Today it's a luxury.
Many students are criticizing the move by the Board of Governors, saying it will unfairly shut out thousands. Others, including college advocacy groups, applaud the move and say prioritizing in an era of austerity and shrinking budgets makes sense.
The enrollment priority shift comes as Gov. Jerry Brown considers whether to sign into law SB1456, a bill that would prevent low-income community college students from receiving fee waivers unless they develop clear academic or vocational goals and stick with them.
Since 2008, the college system has lost 12 percent of its state funding, or $809 million, according to the office of the chancellor in Sacramento. The system's 112 community colleges served 2.9 million students four years ago. Today they serve 2.4 million. And those free enrichment classes are likely to vanish altogether, or become expensive as state subsidies go away.
"In the past, community colleges have been able to serve everyone, and students could accrue a large number of units or do poorly in all of their courses and still receive priority registration," said Chancellor Jack Scott. "Now that colleges have had to cut back on the courses they can offer, those students were taking up seats in classrooms and crowding out newer students focused on job training, degree attainment or transfer."
Beginning in 2014, the system will focus intently on students who are there to earn a vocational certificate, transfer to a university, or acquire such necessary skills as learning English.
These groups will get first crack at signing up for their courses:
-- New students who have completed college orientation and academic assessment, and who have set up a formal academic or vocational education plan for themselves.
-- Returning students with no more than 100 credits (60 credits are needed for transfer to a university as a junior). Credits for basic English, math and English as a second language won't count toward the limit. However, credits will count if a student fails a class or drops it after the second or third week.
Within these groups, first priority will go to active-duty military, veterans and current and former foster youth. Next in line will be very low-income students and the disabled.
"Having new systemwide priorities is a game changer in how our community colleges operate," said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity. Maximizing limited resources for students with education goals "not only helps students, it helps keep California strong."
Yet many students disagree and have fought such austerity measures as they've been developed over the past year.
Some students unhappy
The new priorities "are a really bad compromise," said Jeffrey Fang, a City College of San Francisco student and former statewide student senator who worked with the chancellor's office as it developed the approach.
He voted against them at every step.
Fang said it won't be possible to require students to develop education plans because there aren't enough counselors to help them. He said the new rules also "will pretty much shut out re-entry students because they have too many units."
One such student would have been William Walker, the student trustee at City College who dazzles fellow students with polished political rhetoric as he exhorts them to vote for Measure A in November, a parcel tax intended to help the cash-strapped campus.
Walker went to five colleges, and returned to City College in 2011 with 102 credits - just over the new limit.
"Enrollment priorities don't take into consideration the whole picture," he said. At the same time, "there's no centralized database for all colleges."
So maybe, he said, no one would ever find out.