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Graduation rates could fall as colleges drop classes, instructors

SAN FRANCISCO — It isn't just tuition increases that are driving up the cost of college. Around the country, deep budget cuts are forcing colleges to lay off instructors and eliminate some classes, making it harder for students to get into the courses they need to earn their degree.

The likely result: more time in college.

Policymakers right up to President Barack Obama have been calling on public colleges to move students through more efficiently, and some have been doing so. But experts say any recent progress is threatened by unpre­cedented state budget cuts that have trimmed course offerings.

"They will not graduate on time. I hope they will graduate at all," said David Baggins, who as chairman of political science at California State University at East Bay has been bombarded with requests for spots in already packed classes.

"Before," Baggins said, "there was always a way to help the student who really needed help." This year, "all I can do is say no."

Some students struggle for places in the core entry-level classes such as composition and math because the part-time instructors who typically teach those courses are the first to be laid off in tough times. Other students are shut out of crowded core courses in their majors by upperclassmen. Some upperclassmen face an even tougher road: The upper-level classes they need have been cut entirely because they aren't popular enough.

A federal study of 1999-2000 graduates found it takes students roughly 4.5 years on average to earn a bachelor's degree. About two-thirds of traditional-age college students who finished got through within five. A study of 2009 graduates is not complete.

To help students get the courses they need to graduate, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill raised enrollment caps on some English and foreign language classes from 19 to 24. The University of Kansas also increased some class sizes — but offered fewer sections of a big introductory chemistry course. Both schools say most students who truly needed a class got in.

But at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Ore., where enrollment has grown more than 60 percent in the past three years, nearly 400 students don't have even one of the courses they requested. Many of the school's worker retraining programs consist of classes that are supposed to be taken in sequence, so students who can't get slots could be stuck until next fall.

The 23-campus California State system has raised tuition more than 30 percent, increased class sizes, laid off hundreds of teachers and cut thousands of class sections in response to a 20 percent state budget cut.

Around the country, the belt-tightening has made the usual begging and pleading with professors to make more space especially urgent.

"Some of them are more open — they understand you're trying to get into classes you need," said Haley Sink, a sophomore at Virginia Tech from Kernersville, N.C., who failed to get into several classes this year and hopes to avoid a fifth year of out-of-state tuition. "Others say, 'I absolutely cannot handle more students.' "

Graduation rates could fall as colleges drop classes, instructors 10/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 9:31pm]
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