In this economy, community colleges are widely seen as the solution to many problems. Displaced workers are registering in droves to earn credentials that might get them back in the game. Strapped parents, daunted by the cost of four-year universities, are encouraging their children to spend two years at the local community college.

But for students and professors at overstretched colleges, these are hardly the best of times. With state financing slashed almost everywhere, many institutions have cut so deeply into their course offerings and their faculty rosters that they cannot begin to handle the influx of students.

In some parts of the country, the budget stresses are so serious that the whole concept of community colleges as open-access institutions — where anyone, with any educational background, can enroll at any point in life — is becoming more an aspiration than a reality.

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