With state funding cuts and per-unit fees doubling over the last 15 years, is junior college less the bargain it once was?
Rhonda Reynolds doesn't think so.
She has two daughters currently attending the Stockton San Joaquin Delta College campus; one because she just graduated from high school, the other because she can't get into a four-year university due to admission freezes.
Reynolds put the first child's first two years of tuition on a credit card. Between unit fees and textbook costs, the bill was about $1,000 per semester.
The family does not qualify for financial aid or grants.
"I know it is still the best value for the dollar, but it doesn't make it easier for someone in our position to pay for college." Reynolds said before adding, "It's not the deal it used to be."
In five years, her third daughter will be starting there.
"We make enough to make ends meet, but that's about it."
Most students and their families can expect to pay, on average, from $108 to $1,398 more than last year for 2009's college tuition and fees, depending on the type of college, according to the College Board.
This translates to a national average of $4,552 per year to attend a community college without grants, or $2,352 with them. Comparatively, the cost for an in-state public university is $17,336 without grants and $13,336 with.
These figures do not include the cost of room and board or other expenses.
Go back 25 years, when the 100 or so California community colleges had free tuition and virtually any high school graduate could enter, regardless of grades or future university plans. At that time, those campuses primarily offered two-year associate degree programs ranging from trades such as police work, nursing and culinary arts to programs designed to prepare students to transition to the upper-tier, four-year colleges and universities.
Students entering community colleges for the first time or returning this semester are finding the campus awash with students, while at the same time the colleges are working with reduced budgets. This has meant that many community college students can't get into the classes they need to graduate, or are sitting in overcrowded classrooms. But the cost to even get that far has increased.
When Delta classes resumed last month, students were charged an additional $6 per unit. Those who had already paid this semester's tuition were also hit as the fees were retroactive.
The California State Legislature-mandated student enrollment fee increase for community colleges required the college to raise its fees from $20 to $26 per unit. It was effective immediately for fall classes.
Administrators at Delta informed students of the increase by sending out thousands of e-mails. For the average full-time student, the fee bump equaled about $72 a year.
But on top of the increasing cost of books, parking and class supplies, the less-expensive alternative to heading straight to a four-year college right out of high school may no longer be so viable.
Lodi High graduate Tessa Reynolds, who enrolled as a freshman at Delta this year, said her peers often discuss how much more expensive it is to go to junior college than they thought it would be, especially when it comes to required textbooks.
She bought a used book for biology, but still had to purchase the $90 lab book that cannot be bought used, or resold. She estimated she spent about $200 for the semester since she found a number of the required texts online on sites like Amazon.com.
Still, she will spend the next two years at Delta simply because, she said, it doesn't make sense to spend even more money at a four-year university just to take prerequisites. Plus, she hasn't decided on a major.
Besides, her parents told both her and her sister there was no way either could go straight to a four-year college out of high school.
Rhonda Reynolds' eldest, Lexie, still lives at home, but has a job and pays many of her own bills, including car insurance, gas and cell phone.
"I don't know how they would ever be able to make it not living at home," her mother said.
"She couldn't afford to go to (Delta) without us. She will have to take out loans to further her education. But she can't get a better job until she gets a better degree."
With more students than ever being denied admission to state universities due to their own budget constraints and an increase in the unemployed applying to community colleges to be retrained, enrollment at Delta has skyrocketed. But now administrators have shut down admission.
That's why Lexie is there. She is taking a few classes at Delta, but is ready to transfer to a four-year college.
"All transfers are stopped in the state of California. She has two A.A.'s, but she can't go anywhere," Rhonda Reynolds said.
Some community colleges have slashed course offerings to save money.
Nearly 30 percent of the 2,253 offered by Delta currently have waiting lists, according to recent figures provided by President Raul Rodriguez. So even if a student was able to get in now, he or she probably won't be able to take chosen courses. Some may not even have a full load.
The college has already reduced its class offerings by 470 courses when compared to the fall of 2008.
Returning student Heather Moreno said the campus was packed during the first weeks of school.
"Leaving home an hour before class started left me with 10 minutes to spare after driving around the entire campus to find a parking spot. Once actually inside, (there were) class seats only available for enrolled students," she said, adding that there were at least 20 people standing in the back of the class on a waiting list or hoping to get on the waiting list.
Delta is currently serving more than 1,000 full-time students over its enrollment cap, meaning the college doesn't receive funding from the state for those students. Rodriguez has estimated that educating those students is costing the school $4.8 million.
At the beginning of the school year, Tessa Reynolds was on waiting lists for two classes. The hold-up nearly affected her parents' insurance rates since, oftentimes, companies only insure students carrying a full college load, or 12 units.
She is currently struggling to find a replacement class for one in which she was dropped by the professor because the book she ordered online had yet to arrive.
"I'm struggling in searching for another class because I'm only carrying 10 units," Reynolds said of her less-than-full-time status.
"All of my classes are completely full. There's no room for anyone else. I just feel bad for the students that can't get in at all since they've stopped accepting applications."
Although not set by Delta, the cost of textbooks continue to rise, and parking fees doubled since last year, according to Rodriguez. He added that the college has been working with the regional transit district to possibly have student fees go toward parking or bus passes, but a student election is required.
"Compared to other states, California is really a bargain … even though it's a shock whenever unit costs go up," Rodriguez said.
In Washington state, for example, students pay a standard $81 per unit, and in Florida, it's $86. In Illinois, they have to take a standardized test before enrollment. "We serve everyone," the president added.
"The next closest to us is Texas which is $40 to $50 a unit. In California, we have no control over the cost. It's the Legislature that sets it."
Moreno, who first attended Delta in 1995, has a unique viewpoint of the college's atmosphere. She has returned for a second degree and is currently enrolled at the Stockton campus.
The first go-around, she was on financial aid and can't really say how much tuition and books cost then.
"I don't get help now, which really stinks, but before this semester I paid $20 per unit," she said, adding that books for each class cost about $300.
Jeff Palmquist, who attended Delta from 1993 to 95, described $26 as "a steal" - especially if the student still lives at home, as he did. He and his parents chose Delta because of the cost, although it was half the price back then.
"Also, I knew (that if I did well) it was my ticket to a better university. I was all business when I was there. After Delta, I was accepted to every school for which I applied: University of California, Los Angeles; California State University, Polytechnic; University of California, Santa Barbara; and Santa Clara University. Most of those would not have been options for me out of high school," he added. Now an English teacher at Lodi High, he recommends doing whatever it takes for a four-year degree, whether it's getting a job, applying for grants or taking out loans.
"Community college is an excellent investment as long as the student is focused on getting a four-year degree."
In the end, Rodriguez said the No. 1 reason students choose Delta is the location. "If you want to get a higher education, there aren't many places around here. The other is our faculty … the students constantly say how good their teachers are, even after they go to a university."
Next spring, Delta has projected to cut 295 classes compared to the spring of 2009. That, combined with the courses cut last year, means the college has eliminated 495 classes over the two-year span, according to Rodriguez.
Delta will continue to try and serve as many students as possible this school year and in the fall of 2010. However, starting in the spring 2010 semester, Delta will start closing applications when their classes are full. Students may subsequently apply for upcoming terms.
All the while, administrators there will continue to deal with the trickle-down effect from the state's largest universities and colleges.
The 23-campus California State University system recently announced plans to cut enrollment by 40,000 over the next year, while the University of California has adopted new admissions standards that will affect freshmen entering in 2012, or this year's high-school sophomores. Both are weighing new fee hikes.
Meanwhile, high school college and career counselors will once again urge high school students to get their college applications in before Nov. 30, no matter where they are heading for a post-secondary education.
"It's great if you can go to a four-year university, but if you choose not to, you can still get a degree here to transfer," Rodriguez said.
Or you can get a job.
Delta offers associate's degrees including nursing and technical training that can put graduates directly into the workforce.
Staff writer Joelle Milholm contributed to this report.