SPOKESPERSON: There are no openings in 005.
KWAME HOLMAN: The scramble to sign up for fall classes traditionally is a stressful time for college students. But these students at Northern Virginia Community College, and their counterparts at hundreds of other public colleges and universities, are on the front line of a long-term crisis. For one thing, a record number of publicly funded schools, which educate two-thirds of all college graduates, are raising tuition, pricing out some students.
SPOKESMAN: After I get permission, then I have to come back here?
KWAME HOLMAN: Virginia is one of dozens of states that face historic budget deficits, and in response, have reduced funding to their public colleges. After a state funding cut of more than one-fourth, Northern Virginia Community College raised its tuition 60 percent, from $39 to $63 per credit hour.
JIMMY REED, Student: With the change, I couldn't... I didn't have enough money to take the other classes. So I had to drop those.
KWAME HOLMAN: 20-year-old Jimmy Reed pays his way at the community college by working 30 hours a week at a health club, earning $7an hour. Next semester he expects to have enough money to pay the higher tuition, but he then will face another worry: The classes he needs may already be full.
JIMMY REED: It happened to me last semester with the same class that I'm taking now.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jimmy Reed is not alone. Thousands of students at public colleges and universities not only are paying higher tuition, but are finding there's no room for them in class. That's because the state budget cuts also have meant teacher hiring freezes and the elimination of courses, squeezing the number of classroom slots. To make matters worse, more students than ever are trying to enter public colleges.
SPOKESPERSON: Okay, so there is one spot left in the class. We've got to rush.
KWAME HOLMAN: The explosion of new applicants is one result of the so-called baby boom echo. The children of the post-World War II baby boom now are reaching college age. For many of them, community colleges are attractive as lower-cost alternatives to four- year schools. And at Northern Virginia that's especially true of a burgeoning population of new immigrants. Bob Templin is president of the college whose six campuses serve 64,000 students, making it the second-largest community college in the nation.
ROBERT TEMPLIN: Our students come from 150 different nationalities. They've been told that if they get a good education they'll get a good job. They're the taxi cab driver, the pizza hut deliverer, the office receptionist. They have the talent, they have the drive. They just lack the resources and we lack the capacity.
KWAME HOLMAN: This is the community college's state-of- the-art medical education center. It was designed to turn out nurses, emergency medical technicians, physical therapists, and a host of other health care specialists. There's plenty of classroom space here, but the center doesn't have the money to bring in the staff to run 75 percent of its programs.
ROBERT TEMPLIN: To run this facility at fully operational would be somewhere between $11 million and $13 million. But last year our funding for everything was about $700,000. So without the dollars to hire the teachers, we can't launch the programs, and so we're caught with this very undesirable paradox of having a nice facility, having lots of students, and having lots of jobs, but no ability to train them.
KWAME HOLMAN: The inability to hire teachers means training stations for dental technicians are empty, and prospective students are on a three-year waiting list. It's the same story at the under-used nursing facility.
SPOKESMAN: We have a few students here-- 150 students, but we could train 600. And there are 5,000 vacancies, $40,000 to start.
KWAME HOLMAN: There are jobs waiting for these students?
SPOKESMAN: There are at least ten jobs waiting for every one of these students.
KWAME HOLMAN: 18-year-old Andrea Weeks wants to fill one of those jobs. A single mother, she is studying at Northern Virginia Community College to become a nurse midwife. Weeks secured a scholarship to the school's two-year program and, according to her plan, would have been in a nursing class on this recent afternoon. But the program had no room for her.
ANDREA WEEKS, Student: They only accept 150 applicants to their nursing program, and they already have a waiting list of a least 45 individuals.
KWAME HOLMAN: Where do you rank?
ANDREA WEEKS: I'm not yet on the list. ( Laughs )
KWAME HOLMAN: Students like Andrea Weeks and their community colleges in Virginia aren't the only ones feeling the strain. According to the president of one public college, as many as 10,000 Northern Virginians have had to put their higher education plans on hold because of the double whammy of rising tuitions and too few classroom slots, and they include aspirants to the state's elite public universities.
TEACHER: It does still...
KWAME HOLMAN: Those schools, too, are under the pressure of a rising number of applicants while state funding is being cut. At George Mason, Virginia's fastest-growing public university, the state's contribution was reduced $30 million, to $80 million.
Like northern Virginia community college, George Mason responded by freezing hiring, cutting classes, and increasing tuition. Marianne Barnes, a senior at George Mason, is struggling to get her degree in the face a tuition increase of 30 percent since 2001, from $3,900 to $5,100.
MARIANNE BARNES, Student: You worry about paying loans later and if you're going to have a good job. And it's just really scary.
KWAME HOLMAN: In addition to her classes, Barnes works 30 hours a week. But like many students at public colleges, she is determined to succeed.
MARIANNE BARNES: No one in my family has gone to college, so it means a lot to me that I'm here. I'm not wasting my time. I'm getting out of here no matter what it takes. It's just impossible. More than four years is just awful -- (Laughs) so much money.
KWAME HOLMAN: George Mason University once offered the promise that community college students could transfer there to get their four-year degrees. George Mason President Alan Merten says that no longer is the case.
ALAN MERTEN, President, George Mason University: We're facing the reality that we no longer have as much room for the transfer student. The student that couldn't get into George Mason University or for financial reasons decided to go to a community college in the past has had the relatively solid agreement that they would be able to transfer to George Mason University. We can't guarantee that anymore, and I think we have a crisis and it's not going to get any better.
KWAME HOLMAN: David Breneman, dean of the school of education at the University of Virginia, says the need for more resources to meet the student boom was entirely foreseeable. He says instead of preparing, many states, including Virginia, cut taxes during the flush economic times of the mid and late 1990s.
DAVID BRENEMAN, Dean, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia: I think we have gone berserk on this tax-cutting fever. I mean, we are depriving ourselves systematically of the revenue that would allow us to deal with this problem. So the states... the states, in the 1994 to 2001 period, cut collectively about 8 percent of their revenues, and that amounts to about $40 billion. So they have, in a sense, brought on much of this problem on themselves.
GOV. MARK WARNER: It should come as no surprise that we face another very difficult budget.
KWAME HOLMAN: Virginia Governor Mark Warner says there is no relief in sight for the state's higher education system, even though it already has taken a 20 percent cut over the last two years. Nonetheless, he says, the state's colleges and universities are in a better position to help themselves than other state agencies are.
GOV. MARK WARNER: When you cut a corrections program 15 percent, you know, they don't have any way to recoup those losses of revenues. At least colleges and universities have had a chance to have a little bit of an escape valve here by raising their tuition rates.
KWAME HOLMAN: But George Mason's Alan Merten worries the squeeze on public higher education will mean lower-income students like Marianne Barnes ultimately could be shut out.
ALAN MERTEN: We have a have and have-nots problem in this country. But in many cases we overcome that with higher education. My father was a shoe repairman in Milwaukee. He hadn't gone to college. He had two years of high school. My mother hadn't gone to college. But my parents, from as early as I can remember, were going to make sure that I went to college. And I went to college in an environment in Wisconsin where the state of Wisconsin paid for the vast majority of my education.
What I'm concerned with right now is we're getting to a point where people like me and others who didn't have the economic support, they're not going to have access to college, and that would be a terrible, terrible situation.
KWAME HOLMAN: For his part, Virginia Governor Warner is concerned about the effect on his state's economy.
GOV. MARK WARNER: Failure to bring these new Virginians or low income Virginians into the educated workforce would be the ultimate "cut off your nose to spite your face" because unless we have that well-educated workforce, we won't be competitive.
DAVID BRENEMAN: It frankly means we're going to have to increase taxes, and you know how politically popular that is right now. I mean, you know, look at the war that the governor in Virginia is waging with the republican legislature over the tax issue. We haven't come to grips with that issue right now, and I don't know if we will. And if we don't, we'll lose a substantial part of a generation of young people.
KWAME HOLMAN: Potentially adding to the burden for students at public colleges are plans by the federal government to trim grant programs and to require students and their families to shoulder more of the cost of college. Meanwhile, a leading employment research group reported last month that over the next decade the U.S. economy will need seven million more college graduates than current graduation rates are producing.