Following a ten-year career in human resources at an investment firm in Sacramento, California, 35-year-old Michelle Ko is currently a California community college student. After deciding that the cut-throat corporate environment wasn’t for her—and spending several years unemployed—she is transitioning careers. In the fall of 2010, she enrolled at Glendale Community College (GCC) to pursue a nursing degree.

Michelle grew up the younger of two sisters in the suburbs of the Northern California city of San Jose. Both of her parents were born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1960s. Michelle’s parents owned a liquor store and managed to send her and her older sister, Sue, to private schools for most of their primary education. Michelle’s parents believed strongly in advancement through education.

In the last semester of her senior year in high school, Michelle participated in “Project Advance,” a program that enabled her to complete college credits at San Jose Community College while still in high school. For several years after high school, she worked part-time and spent the rest of her time at DeAnza College and American River Community College. Lacking clear academic goals, Michelle determined that school was not the natural course for her and decided to join the work force full-time instead.

After a ten-year absence from school, Michelle found herself at GCC pursuing a nursing degree, a high-demand career field which could represent long-term financial stability. Michelle’s first day at GCC was unlike her earlier college experience. She recalls with awe the intensity of the first day of her Math 101 class. About 60 students overwhelmed the small classroom, all hoping to add the class. In the end, 25 were wait-listed and the rest turned away. With amazement, she recalls arriving at school an hour and a half before the start of class to find that the only available parking was on a residential street a mile and a half from campus. Even though she had purchased a campus parking pass, she was unable to park in the school’s parking lots because they—like many classes—were full to capacity.

All of the lessons Michelle learned climbing the corporate ladder did not prepare her for the challenges of being a community college student and what happens when student demand overwhelms the resources.

Many students are unable to enroll in classes they need because they are full. Students soon discover that the only “solution” is a deep and abiding flexibility on their part.

At GCC, the registration process is handled online, approximately five weeks prior to the start of the semester. Each student is assigned a priority registration date; this is the specific date and time that the student can first enroll in classes. Registration dates are assigned according to the number of units a student has completed; the more units a student has, the earlier the registration date and the better the odds of getting the needed classes.

As a new student last year, Michelle had no applicable units because the credits she earned at San Jose City College, DeAnza and American River had expired. Because of this, she was among the last group of students eligible to enroll in classes. Her registration date was very late in the schedule—about a week and a half before the start of classes.

Ultimately, Michelle’s course load was determined by default. As soon as the schedule of classes was published, Michelle filled her online basket with every session of every class that would count toward her degree. At the appointed day and time, she logged on and waited, checking back daily on her enrollment status. As the classes filled up, she removed them from her basket. The final courses remaining in her basket at the end of the registration period constituted her schedule for the semester. She had started the registration period with two dozen classes, hoping to get six. She ended with four.

In theory, this system of prioritization should work because newer students like Michelle have a broader range of requirements to fulfill compared to more senior students, and many of these requirements are core classes, i.e., English 101, Math 101, History 101. Since every student is required to take core classes, a class like Math 101 may have as many as eight sessions offered per semester. But, as Michelle found with her math class, core classes are severely impacted.

Now only two semesters into her tenure at GCC, Michelle expects that the problem of enrollment will only compound further as she moves away from needing the core requirements to the fewer, more specialized classes required for her program. For courses like microbiology or anatomy, there may only be three or four sessions offered per semester. Naturally, she is bracing herself for being waitlisted.

“There will be classes like my science classes where I’m going to have to beg the teacher on a daily basis to be added. If the professor says ‘I can’t do it,’ I know I’ll be reduced to groveling,”

she said.

Like many other students, Michelle thought a solution to the problem of impacted classes would be to take the classes at other community college campuses. What she found is that there are layers upon layers of uncertainties that make this a challenging option. To begin with, most community colleges in the region face the same problem—demand for classes outweighs class availability—so the pastures are no greener and just as crowded elsewhere.

If Michelle wants to complete Glendale Community College’s nursing program, she cannot take more than half of her courses at other California community colleges. Michelle and her peers find this restriction particularly frustrating because the colleges are all part of the same system and course work should therefore be compatible and equitable.

Another dimension of the problem is the question of transferability and the inconsistency of how courses are named. Based on course catalogs and the schedule of classes, it is difficult to determine with certainty if, for instance, History 10A at Pasadena City College is the equivalent of Glendale Community College’s core history requirement, History 101, and if it is transferable? Is Philosophy 1 the same as Philosophy 15, and is it transferable? Should a student wish to confirm transferability, the only way to do so with any degree of certainty is to meet with a counselor. Yet in-person meetings are often impractical or impossible to schedule because of the sheer volume of students, the high student-to-counselor ratio, and the long wait in scheduling meetings with counselors.

As an example, one of Michelle’s friends was assessed at the level of Math 101. After trying unsuccessfully for two semesters to enroll—that’s one full academic year—her friend opted to take two equivalent but slower paced classes, Math 101A and Math 101B, over the course of two semesters rather than wait another year.

For working students, scheduling is another major obstacle to completing needed classes. Class times can often conflict with work schedules. “Many students can’t believe I carried 14 units a semester,” Michelle said. She is fortunate because she does not have to work while attending school. Her sister generously supports her through this transition, so she has the flexibility to take classes offered at odd times, classes that would be incompatible for someone with a part-time job. Last semester, she was on a dawn-to-dusk schedule, with classes starting as early as 8:30 a.m. and ending as late as 10:30 p.m., with one- to two-hour breaks in between. Michelle observes that it is hard for a student to work and go to school: “How many jobs can one get where you can say ‘I can come in for two hours in the morning, and two hours at night?'”

One of Michelle’s chief concerns is the high ancillary cost of attending community college.

Textbooks are a prime example of this. In the case of Chemistry 101, Michelle’s textbooks cost more than the cost of the class—about $200 while the cost of the five-unit class was only $130. Reselling used textbooks is a way for students to recoup some of the money spent on books. Around the college’s bookstore, one can find students pacing the parking lot peddling their used books and advertising their wares with handmade cardboard signs like, “Anthropology 103 book for sale,” “Spanish 102,” “American History,” etc.

In the two semesters Michelle has been a student at GCC, she has seen two fee increases. “Our tuition has gone up. Our parking has gone up. Even things like our I.D. cards have gone up,” said Michelle. The costs add up. She had planned to take classes year round during the summer and winter intercessions. Yet, this was not to be because the core courses for summer filled before Michelle could enroll. In the meantime, Michelle is seeking work for the summer. She hopes to remain on track and finish the nursing prerequisites in a year’s time.