Meanwhile, new students who have taken assessments, completed an orientation and developed a plan for their education – such as transferring to a four-year university or earning a degree or certificate – would jump a step ahead in line. So would continuing students in good standing.
At a time when the demand for community college classes is bigger than the supply, getting an early shot at registering makes all the difference. In response to budget cuts, the colleges have cut course offerings by 15 percent since 2008-09. Enrollment has dropped by 300,000 students, according to the Chancellor's Office.
After today's hearing, the proposal could advance to a second reading in September, and if ultimately approved it could be implemented in fall 2014.
It's part of a package of proposed reforms that bubbled up from the Student Success Task Force, a 20-member group of trustees, campus presidents, business representatives, faculty and students that finalized a set of recommendations in January.
Under the proposed enrollment policy, first priority would stay roughly the same. The earliest slots would go to active-duty military and veterans as well as foster youth and former foster youth. Second priority would go to students in special programs for at-risk and disabled students.
It's the third level of priority that would change. The next spots would go to new students who have education plans and have gone through orientation and assessment, as well as continuing students who are in good academic standing and have taken fewer than 100 units.
Basic skills and English as a Second Language courses would not count toward the 100-unit limit.
The idea is to give students who are on track toward a degree, certificate or transfer a leg up in the competition for classes.
Rich Copenhagen has experienced the bottleneck firsthand. The political science student has managed to enroll in classes he needs to transfer by sitting on the floor or listening from outside a packed classroom and waiting until enough people drop out so he can get a spot. He takes classes at Berkeley City College, Laney, College of Alameda and Merritt.
He hasn't even tried to get into the most popular general education classes he'll need to transfer, such as anthropology, because he knows they're so hard to get into.
"I'm really concerned if – when I get to the point where I only need two or three more classes, which is going to be very soon – that getting those specific classes may take me significantly longer than it should," he said.
Copenhagen is a member of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges and sat on a workgroup that examined the enrollment priority issue. He said he supports the policy even though he wishes it were not necessary.
"Recognizing the financial difficulties that the state is having right now and how many students are being pushed out of the system, we took a position of support," he said.
Peter White, vice president of student services at San Diego City College and past president of the community colleges' chief student service officers organization, said the group also supports the idea.
"I don't think as state policy it makes sense in this day and age to have an open-ended commitment to endless course-taking regardless of direction or success," he said.
But the group has concerns about the details of how the new policy would be implemented. For example, districts would struggle financially to offer orientation and advising to every new student because they have cut back so much on these services, White said.
"Unless I'm missing something, we are channeling a whole lot of students towards services that we can't fully provide them," he said.
Linda Michalowski, vice chancellor for student services and special programs, said districts have been required to have matriculation services for all students since 1986, but districts had an out if they had insufficient funding. The policy is an incentive for districts to focus resources on new students, she said.
"The only way we're going to get a handle on getting students off on the right foot is to focus services on the front end," she said.
White's group also has concerns about another piece of the policy: the part that takes priority enrollment away from students who are placed on probation for two semesters in a row – either because they withdraw from too many courses or their grades sink below a 2.0.
Often, by the time students get their grades from the previous semester, they've already registered for the next semester's classes. So the punishment would likely be delayed until the following semester.
But if a student racks up two semesters of probation and improves his or her grades in the third term, applying the punishment at that point might be tricky.
Michalowski pointed out there's an appeal process so that students who lose priority can ask for a review.
White thinks that there will be many more appeals than the Chancellor's Office seems to expect.
Another recommendation from the task force would make students who lose good academic standing ineligible for a fee waiver. So two semesters of probation would trigger the loss of the waiver and the loss of priority enrollment.
"You can be very sure that many, many thousands of students who had that happen to them would not just walk away from the college; they would come to somebody's door and demand to have that decision reconsidered," White said.
The cost of processing appeals is one of several that college districts might have to deal with. Other costs include reprogramming colleges' computer systems.
Michalowski said the Chancellor's Office has been talking to district staff to get a sense of estimated costs. She hopes the figures will be compiled this week. White's group is also putting together an estimate.
"There are individuals in the Chancellor's Office that are very interested in assuring the board that the cost will be very doable," White said. "We don't share that confidence."
Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)