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Eighteen-year-old Ariane Flores is caught in a bind. Her dream college, the University of California, San Diego, said no. San Diego State University said yes. Going out of town for college was never on the table.

Then there’s a third choice, which could be risky. Flores could enroll at the nearby community college and transfer into her dream college, following a path that California has charted for students for years.

Doing that would be cheaper than San Diego State. Lots of her friends are doing it. Flores, who has her sights on medical school someday, thinks getting into UCSD later would give her an edge on her dream.

But transferring isn’t such a sure thing anymore as it gets harder to get into community college classes, and harder to transfer out to the universities once students like Flores get there.

Budget cuts have already forced San Diego community colleges to turn away roughly 10,000 students from classes each semester this year; college officials estimate it was well below 2,000 in the past. Most summer classes have been canceled. More than 13,000 students landed on waitlists this year.

It is one sign of the deterioration of the California dream: the diminishing chance at college for everyone. The University of California system was meant to cater to the top students, the California State universities to the upper third, and the community colleges were to be open to all. Now even come-one, come-all community colleges are running short on classes for thousands of students who want in.

“I just have this fear of getting stuck at community college,” said Flores, a senior at Mira Mesa High. “I don’t know what I would do. You fear having everything that you’ve put in high school going to waste.”

Booming demand and shrinking supply have stopped the community colleges from delivering for everyone. More students have turned to community colleges as UCs and CSUs lift the bar, adjusting to an exploding crop of high school graduates groomed for college. Few new public universities have been built.

The odds of getting into San Diego State have been cut in half from 61 percent to 30 percent in the past decade. Just five years ago, freshmen at San Diego State came from high schools with a 3.45 grade point average, hovering between an A and a B with weight for tougher classes. Now the average is a 3.63.

Teens who once might have gotten into San Diego State or UCSD have the chance to turn to community colleges instead and try to transfer in after two years. But the community colleges are pinched too.

Students like Audrey Powell, a 23-year-old who juggles kids and a job at Domino’s Pizza with her anthropology classes at San Diego City College, find their classes have waitlists before they can even sign up.

“They’re being shut out from both sides,” said Lynn Neault, vice chancellor of student services at the San Diego Community College District.

To the east, Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District was short more than 12,000 class seats for its nearly 30,000 students. It plans to turn away almost 5,000 more students next year. To the south, Southwestern Community College District says it must stop footing the bill for hundreds of students the state doesn’t cover.

And if state tax increases aren’t extended, community colleges fear they will be cut even more. Slashing $800 million from their budgets, as state officials predict, would mean turning away more than 400,000 students statewide.

Meanwhile, UCSD has shrunk its freshman class from roughly 4,000 students to 3,700 in the past two years. San Diego State, pressured to enroll nearly 11 percent fewer undergraduates a year and a half ago, dropped its guarantee that local teens would get in if they snagged the minimum grades and test scores. Local kids still get an edge — but not a guaranteed spot.

Kim George counsels students at Mira Mesa High about their college choices and graduated from San Diego State. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten in,” George said of the current situation. “I think you just needed a 3.0.”

“You needed a pulse and money!” joked Debbie Blanchard, another counselor.

Ethan Singer, associate vice president for academic affairs at San Diego State, says the CSUs are still serving the top third, but students may not be able to get into the exact CSU that they want. That can trip up students like Flores, who need to stay in San Diego for college to save money or help family. The dramatic competition to get into San Diego State has made it a poster child for this dilemma statewide.

“You have a problem in San Diego that is more severe than anywhere else in the state,” said Rita Mize, director of state policy for the Community College League of California.

The economic downturn has also prodded more and more people to go back to school, putting more strain on the system. And as federal grants for students are being cut, even students like Flores who got into four-year-colleges are eyeing community colleges as a way to save money, Blanchard said.

At Mira Mesa High, “it’s UCSD, UCSD, UCSD,” Blanchard said. But if teens don’t get in to the beloved local university, the alternate route has long been going to community college and transferring in. Nearly two out of every three Mira Mesa High students go on to two-year-colleges from high school.

However, the path from community college to a four-year-university has not always run smooth. One study found that six years in, 65 percent of San Diego and Imperial County community college students seeking degrees hadn’t gotten one and hadn’t transferred.

And now it will be harder. UCSD is hiking the grades that community college students need for a guaranteed spot there from a 3.0 to a 3.5 for next fall. It decided to ramp up the requirements after twice as many transfer students were guaranteed spots this year than they had funding for, said admissions director Mae Brown.

“I structured my whole plan here to meet the criteria to transfer to UCSD,” said San Diego City College student body president Beto Vasquez. He is relieved that he slid in before the change with a 3.43 and doesn’t have to scramble for new rules. “It would be like taking three steps back to retrace my steps.”

San Diego State also stiffened its transfer guarantee, but so few students met that bar last year that the university ended up loosening the rules to meet its targets. Even then, roughly 1,100 San Diego community college students couldn’t get in, Neault said. Growing numbers of San Diego community college students go to nonprofit National University or for-profits like the University of Phoenix.

Moniqua Smith came back to community college more than a decade after dropping out, wanting to stop working retail and become a counselor. Now, frustrated to see summer classes suddenly disappearing, she wonders if she should switch to National or Phoenix to get ahead.

“If I was 18, maybe I’d feel like I have more time,” she said. “I don’t want to waste time taking something and the rules change.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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