Fee increases and possible enrollment restrictions at all California universities may push more students to start their higher education at community colleges.

When the fall semester starts Sept. 2 at Columbia College, students with a full course load of 12 units will pay $432 a year. But undergraduate tuition at California State University, Stanislaus, is up $474 to $2,544 annually, not including books or housing.

The fees at Columbia College recently went up by $7 a unit from $11 to $18 when Gov. Gray Davis signed Assembly Bill 1754.

Columbia College spokesman Doug Lau said that even with the increase, community college is the best higher education bargain around.

"Enrollment has not been affected so far," Lau said. "In fact we are right on track with our enrollment from last year. We may even see an increase in enrollment as it is a wise move for students to take their general education requirement courses at a community college where it is more affordable."

Beyond the rising cost, students may have a harder time getting into universities. California's budget crisis has forced state universities to consider limiting enrollment.

In 1960, the California Master Plan for Higher Education was passed by state Board of Education. The plan allowed all California students free access to either a campus in the University of California or California State University system or a community college.

Under the plan, high school students who graduate in the top 12.5 percent of their class can attend one of the UC schools. Those in the top 33.3 percent can attend a CSU school, and any high school graduate can attend a community college.

Admission fees have since been instituted, but still remain affordable as more and more financial aid becomes available to needy students.

But that access could be jeopardized. CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed told presidents of all 23 CSU campuses that the system will cut next year's enrollment in half essentially denying admission to as many at 30,000 students in the spring 2004 term.