SAN PABLO -- In a world in which education is becoming increasingly expensive while at the same time more essential, new Contra Costa College President Denise Noldon is trying to make the pieces of the puzzle fit for as many students as she can.

"All of higher education is in crisis mode," Noldon said. "We're sorely underfunded, so students can't get classes, and it's taking them longer to get through school."

Noldon, 57, arrived at the 55-year-old campus in July after her previous stint as vice president of student development at Folsom Lake College in Folsom. She said she started at Folsom Lake in 2005 when it had one building, and when she left it had seven.

"It was a good place to learn about things," she said.

Helen Benjamin, chancellor of the Contra Costa Community College District, chose Noldon from a field of 30 applicants.

Benjamin said she was impressed by Noldon's "maturity as an administrator and organizational skills" and her multicultural background.

"She wasn't in a rush to get a presidency and stayed in each prior job for a long time," Benjamin said. "She is accustomed to urban areas and, even though she was working in a rural area, she wanted to be a president in an urban area."

Noldon took over from McKinley Williams, who retired after seven years as president.

Noldon said Contra Costa College students fall into three basic categories when they enroll: Those who need basic skills they didn't learn in high school, those who want career and technical education in a two-year program, and those who intend to transfer to a four-year school.

"A majority want to transfer at first," Noldon said. "But a significant number decide they like automotive or engineering technology or another terminal degree after they arrive and pursue that."

The campus is also home to Middle College High School, operated in partnership with the West Contra Costa Unified School District, and the Gateway to College program for students who have left high school before graduating, which the college operates independently.

About 45 percent of Middle College students graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time, although not all four-year colleges accept all the college transfer credits, she said.

Contra Costa College benefited from the passage of Proposition 30, which erased some potential funding cuts, and a federal grant, but Measure A, a countywide parcel tax to raise about $4 million annually over six years for community colleges, failed at the polls Nov. 6.

Measure A was intended to pay for more courses in health care, public safety and technology which have the most student demand in the Contra Costa Community College system.

"Measure A came so close, but Proposition 30 passing meant we didn't have to cut sections and lay people off, and we were actually able to add some sections," Noldon said.

Another challenge appeared when the federal government shortened the time students can receive Pell Grants (the basic grant for low-income students) from 18 semesters to 12, she said.

"We have to get students through more quickly," Noldon said. "They can't spend any more time here than necessary if they are going to have grant money left for a four-year school."

Noldon said she's working with local chambers of commerce and service clubs and other East Bay community colleges and four-year universities to develop new sources of funding and connections for students to the world of work.

She is excited about the plan for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to expand to Richmond because of the possibility of internships, educational partnerships and jobs.

Contra Costa College's students really want an education and need a lot of support in getting one, Benjamin said.

"They largely come from families with parents that have not gone to college," she said. "You have to build an infrastructure that supports that kind of student."

Noldon grew up in Berkeley and graduated from Berkeley High School in 1973 before leaving to attend Cal State Long Beach, where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees. She has a Ph.D. in counseling from the University of Maryland.

She has also worked in counseling at Las Positas College, Chabot College and Cal State East Bay.