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Enrollment at California Community Colleges has dropped 17 percent below its 2008-09 peak, system officials said today, blaming the decline on post-recession state budget cuts.

The 112-college system had 2.4 million students last school year, 485,000 fewer than in 2008-09. Community colleges have long served a variety of needs, including recent high school graduates, adults seeking new skills and retirees taking recreational courses. It is unclear who comprises the group that fell off.

Community colleges are heavily subsidized by the state, and leaders said campuses have cut back their course offerings by 24 percent to save money. The state has also raised costs from $26 per unit in 2010-11 to $46 per unit now, though more than half of students have their fees waived.

Schools have tried to protect courses necessary for a degree, remediation or vocational education. But even those essential courses have filled to the brim, leaving long wait lists, said spokeswoman Paige Marlatt Dorr. System leaders believe students have fled community colleges because they can't get the classes they need or want.

"The real tragedy in all of this is the students we're pushing out of our institutions," said Los Rios Community College District Chancellor Brice Harris in a statement. "At the high water mark of January 2009, Los Rios had 93,000 students. This week we opened the doors with 82,000 students but that's only half of the story because state projections showed us at about 100,000 students. So, really the number of students being denied access to these colleges in the Sacramento region is somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 18,000."


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