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At Santa Rosa Junior College, students vying to get into fast-filling classes will soon need to be ready to pounce at an hour when many might prefer to be sleeping.

The school is ending an era where students who qualify for early registration are assigned two-hour enrollment windows between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Starting with fall registration next month, all students in a particular group will face the same start time — midnight.

There will still be priority registration based on a returning student's status, but within the priority everyone will have the same start time.

Diane Traversi, SRJC's director of admissions, said the new approach will be fairer, favoring more motivated students rather than those who simply got lucky with a good time.

"Every one gets basically the same starting line for the race," she said. "There is no staggering. Everybody gets the same chance."

The change is no small thing at a school where it's becoming increasingly difficult to get classes as budget cuts and increased demand pinch from both sides.

On the first day of summer school registration last Monday, 2,200 students signed up for classes, 300 more than on the same day last year, vying for instructors whose numbers were cut by 16 percent.

Pablo Betancourt was among those registering on the first day, a privilege related to the number of units he has earned.

At SRJC, students generally gain priority as they earn units, though they can also move up by meeting with guidance counselors or attending orientations.

Even with "Priority 1," though, Betancourt had to wait until his assigned start time at 4 p.m., nine hours after the first students in his priority group started nabbing spots.

By the time his chance came, Betancourt could only get the first spot on the waiting list for the Chemistry 1A class he direly needs.

"It is frustrating," he said. "If you are priority one you should have the same priority as everyone else who is a one."

The switch to a midnight start is an attempt to inject more fairness into the process as the state budget crisis is making it harder for students to get what they need.

Unlike four-year institutions, community colleges are open to all; they just give different students different priority. As money grows tight, the increasingly important question is who gets to go to the head of the line? And who goes to the back?

It's a topic getting statewide attention. In January, the state Legislative Analysts Office issued a report that called for colleges to push students not making academic progress down the priority ladder along with those who accumulate credits far above the 60 generally required to transfer or earn an associate's degree.

SRJC has considered its own punitive measures, including penalizing students who repeatedly withdraw from class or who fail them. Those items are still under discussion. But so far the school has focused on giving a carrot to eager students rather than a stick to laggards.

Counselor Steve Morris said he laughs when he tells students that registration is now opening at midnight, but he also warns them to be ready.

"There will probably be 3,000 of you logging in at the same time so yeah, I'd be doing it," he said.

Another change will make it easier for students who come back to SRJC with previous degrees. Currently, the school gives top priority to students with 42 to 90.5 units to help those nearing the end of their studies.

But students exceeding 90.5 units are docked priority, which hurts students who have earned degrees elsewhere. Effective for spring, SRJC will only count units earned at the college when figuring priority.

"I am wildly in favor of it," said Susan Wilson, chairwoman of the life sciences department, whose anatomy classes invariably fill within hours of opening.

"The community colleges should serve the community. That includes people who went off and got a bachelor's and life changed and they need to be retrained as much as anyone else."

The change, however, may make it harder for people who switch from other junior colleges or who earn college credit in high school because they'll have fewer units counted.

Alaina Piskor, who enrolled at SRJC after earning an associate's degree in Massachusetts, was glad for the change. But she — like Wilson — would also like to see the school address students who routinely withdraw from classes, which denies spots to other students.

"It seems crazy," she said. "People are competing for these spots and the people who got them took them for granted. At this point in the semester there are lots of empty seats in my classes."