Alley Alvarez didn't want to go to college, and her parents didn't want her to go either. They told her she should focus on earning money and taking care of her 3-year-old son.
But after Ms. Alvarez quit a job cleaning houses last summer, she couldn't find another one. Her social worker told her that in order to stay on welfare, her only other option was to enroll in the local community college.
"I really wanted to work and get more money so I could move out of my parents' place, but it didn't work out," says Ms. Alvarez, 19, who started here at Columbia College last fall.
The recession has driven low-income young people who would otherwise be working into college. They often need remedi al training in writing and math, but more urgently, many students also rely on college as a social safety net.
Visits to Columbia College nurses and psychiatrists have tripled during the past four years. A food bank is expected to double in size this semester to serve 150 students. A day-care center on campus has a long waiting list. Without those serv ices, college work would be impossible for many here.
At 7:30 most mornings, Ms. Alvarez arrives at Columbia, a stunning campus only 25 miles from Yosemite National Park that features redwood trees, geese, and—every so often—a mountain lion. She drops off her son, Julian, at the day-care center and walks to her morning class.
There are no other kids on Julian's block, so spending the day at Columbia is his chance to play with kids his own age, she says. Besides, if not for the day-care facility, which is free to eligible students and the public, "I'd have to find somewhere where I'd have to pay," she says. "I'd probably not be able to afford that, not yet."
When she picks Julian up in the afternoon after her classes, he asks her, "Did you take notes, Mommy?"

Afraid to Ask Questions

Ms. Alvarez can be shy, and for a long time people have been telling her to ask more questions. "In elementary school, I was scared to ask," she says. "In high school, I was scared to ask."
She didn't say much in the first few weeks of college, and she didn't do her homework, either. Her parents were pressing her to drop out, and she had heard in high school that college professors didn't want to speak to their students, just lecture at them.
But something changed last fall in a 20-person class in the First-Semester Experience program. The class, "College Sur vival," teaches basic social and or gani zational skills—time management, taking notes, working in groups—to students at a high risk of dropping out.
"Am I allowed to ask you questions if I don't understand anything?" she remembers asking a few weeks into the course. The instructor said yes. Ms. Alvarez began feeling more comfortable asking anytime she didn't know what was going on—perhaps too many questions, she says. "I've been not so scared at asking, because I don't want to fail," she says.
For the moment, Ms. Alvarez has given up her goal of moving out of her parents' house. But her grades have improved this semester, and she now intends to transfer to the University of California at Merced and become an ultrasound technician. "I'm not going to let anybody get me down," she says.
Many students arrive at college doubting their own abilities, even feeling like they don't have a right to be on campus. If the highest-risk students are not able to find the right help to control their self-doubts, they are likely to drop out.
Some seek help from counselors and other health officials. Laureen Campana, Columbia's nurse, runs a bustling walk-in health center on campus, where she handles or refers anything from a sore throat to depression to chronic health conditions.
"What I keep finding is that I get pulled down to the bottom: They're hungry, they're cold, they're worried," Ms. Campana says. "I can't really get to the self-actualization stuff when I have to take care of really basic needs."
When Columbia opened in 1968, its health services existed mostly to try to stanch the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Services have since grown steadily in size and scope, surviving on a mandatory per-semester health fee, now $17 per student. In recent years, the college has hired psychiatrists and an additional staff member in the nurse's office.
Most colleges have seen similar increases in demand. But Columbia's rural surroundings have made on-campus services of all kinds more critical. The campus draws its 4,400 students from roughly 2,500 square miles of sparsely populated outposts and former Gold Rush towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Some students drive an hour or more to get to campus. Others rely on a bus that arrives on campus once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once at night.
It can be counterproductive to refer students who spend their day on campus to a clinic in the next county, Ms. Campana says."They're just not going to go."
In any case, the public safety net is full of holes. Surrounding Tuolumne County has a 14-percent unemployment rate and, like most rural areas in the West, a high suicide rate. College officials used to be able to refer students with potential learning disabilities to a public counselor for diagnosis. But the county dropped that position three years ago. Such students are now typically referred to Ms. Campana, or to an academic tutor.

A Web of Support

Julie Peavey first came to orientation at Columbia College in 2008, about 17 years after she dropped out of the ninth grade. She couldn't handle it. She listened to the entrance requirements, got overwhelmed, and slipped out.
The second time she returned, last fall, wasn't much better. But she had quit her customer-service job at a free-range turkey ranch and had promised herself she would return to school. "What's the next best thing besides going to get another dead-end job? Columbia College," Ms. Peavey remembers thinking.
She ended up in a different section of the same First-Semester Experience course that Alley Alvarez was taking. Looking around the room at the other students—young women, mainly, with a smattering of older men—she was "scared to death," she says.
She learned she would be writing 20,000 words in her English class, which seemed impossible. Halfway through the semester, she was assigned a peer tutor half her age.
"I'm just going to have to suck it up and have this 17-year-old girl read my paper and tell me what to do," Ms. Peavey, 34, remembers thinking. "That would bother some people."
But other services at Columbia helped her get through the first, most difficult stretch. She saved money by signing up for the gym on campus. She used the food bank when she needed it. Sometimes, when she got stressed out and felt like she wanted to drop out, she would come into Ms. Campana's office and take a nap. She also visited the psychiatrist.
"It's here, and it's not like I'm gonna pay a psychiatrist $80 to $100 an hour," she says. Having somebody to talk to made it easier to stay in college. "It's better than popping a Xanax," she says.
She had other support. She had the same schedule as her best friend, and they made a pact—still unbroken—never to miss a class. The instructor in "College Survival," Alicia Kolstad, helped her feel comfortable. "I don't remember anybody ever talking to me about college," she says. "Right now, my life, I feel like I'm making the right decisions."
Last month, Ms. Peavey visited the "College Survival" class taught by her former instructor. The mix of students, only two weeks into college, was like the one she remembered: mostly young women, and a few men in their 40s or 50s.
As Ms. Peavey watched, groups of students stood nervously in front of the class and gave presentations on how to set a schedule and how to avoid procrastinating. Most of the students got through all right; a few got flustered and ended their talks midsentence.
When the students sat down, Ms. Kolstad, the instructor, asked them to volunteer what their studying goal was.
A young woman raised her hand; her goal was that she wanted to study. Good, Ms. Kolstad said. Another woman raised her hand and said that she would study. Better, Ms. Kolstad said. An older man jumped in to say that he would study for two hours the next day. Much better, Ms. Kolstad said.
The young woman who responded first looked lost and raised her hand again. "Was my answer wrong?" she asked.
It can be difficult to measure education. But as Ms. Peavey watched the class, the evidence of her own progress was on her face, in a sustained smile. She chuckled quietly. Those questions were the same ones she had asked.