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Elizabeth Bucher, 19, did all she could to get into Biology 2.1 this semester, the last class she needs to transfer to UC Davis.

All spots were full before her registration window even opened, and so she crashed the first day of class last week in search of an empty seat.

But two dozen other students had the same idea, leaving the instructor no choice but to draw lots for six spots, a lottery that the Healdsburg High grad — and most of the other hopefuls — lost.

"It was really disappointing just because now I know I have to be at the JC another year," she said.

Delayed transfers are a rising fear at SRJC, where course reductions and rising student demand have made enrolling in some crucial classes virtually as challenging as the classes themselves.

The worry, school counselors say, is most acute for science, math and engineering students, who face a rigid path of sequential courses, many with strictly limited enrollments due to lab space.

Miss one or two classes and suddenly everything can get out of whack, said Greg Sheldon, a longtime counselor who frequently works with science students.

"This is the first time in my history here that I literally have to tell students, &‘I'm sorry, not getting that class just cost you another year here at the JC,'" Sheldon said.

He said the problem is compounded because the California State University and University of California systems have dramatically curtailed spring transfers.

"If they are missing one course, they are up a creek," he said.

Students, such as Bucher, may be able to make up a class they miss in the spring in the fall, but they still can't transfer until the following year, Sheldon said.

Frustrations with the state of affairs were evident Friday in instructor Matt Bradley's physics lab, which drew an overflow of nearly 20 students hoping for a space in a class already filled to its 24-person capacity.

Some said Bradley's lab was the last class they needed to get bachelor's degrees, to qualify for grad school or to transfer to university.

"Panicked, that's the best way to describe it," said Abigail Lavoie, who has been attending SRJC since graduating from UC Santa Cruz to take science classes needed for medical school.

Already she's spent $3,000 on medical school applications, which indicate she will have the physics lab under her belt by this fall.

She sees little sign the schools will be in a forgiving mood if she's not able to get the lab.

"They'll tell me to apply again next year," she said.

At UC Davis, the most popular transfer destination for SRJC students heading to the UC system, officials try to accommodate students struggling with getting classes, said Walter Robinson, UC Davis' assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate admissions.

But for those students trying to transfer into impacted majors, such as biology, it's much harder to overlook missing prerequisites, Robinson said.

Even with the space crunch, however, a rising number of SRJC student have been successfully transferring to four-year schools.

Between 2006-2007 and 2010-2011 school years, the number of SRJC students admitted to the UC system, for example, rose 33 percent.

But during the same period, the number of applications rose by an even larger amount, 38 percent, underscoring what SRJC counselors say is a major cause of the current class-crunch.

Tough times not only have reduced freshmen berths at many public universities, they've made the affordability of SRJC more attractive, which together have brought in more high-caliber students.

The problem is further exacerbated by a bleak job market, which seems to be increasing interest in science, math and engineering, often seen as safer bets for employment that the liberal arts, Sheldon said.

Mary Kay Rudolph, SRJC vice president of academic affairs, acknowledged life has become harder for students during the state budget crisis.

In the past four years, SRJC has cut the equivalent of full-time faculty staffing by 20 percent, she said. But science, math and engineering classes largely have been protected from the waves of downsizing, she said.

Instead the effects have been most heavily felt in such areas as music, art, P.E. and especially non-credit classes, such as older adult education. This spring, enrollment in non-credit class plunged 57 percent from spring 2011, according to attendance figures from last week.

Kerry Campbell-Price, SRJC's dean of science, technology, engineering and math, said the college has fewer students than just a few years ago but more full-time students intent on transferring as soon as possible.

SRJC is struggling to meet their needs, she said, suggesting that the bottlenecks may not get better any time soon.

People long have become familiar with students at state universities who can't graduate in four years, she said. If current trends continue, it may become just as common for people to accept similarly long journeys though community college, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer

Sam Scott at 521-5431 or sam.scott@pressdemocrat.com.