Fall enrollment is off to a surging start at Santa Rosa Junior College as students race for space in a reduced number of classes.

Nearly 5,000 students signed up for classes Monday and Tuesday, the first days of enrollment for students with top priority in the registration process.

The figure marks a 20 percent increase over the same period last year even as the number of sections offered by the college has been cut by nearly 11 percent since last fall due to budget concerns. The 2011 fall semester begins Aug. 22.

"Students are more prepared. They are ready and they are jumping on it right away," said Diane Traversi, SRJC director of admissions. "We are going to fill up faster than ever."

Generally speaking, SRJC students gain priority in the registration process as they accumulate units or take steps such as meeting with counselors.

The tiered sign-up system ends July 18 when anyone can start signing up for classes, though by then many sections will be full.

Kelli Smith, a nursing student with top registration priority, worked Monday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., preventing her from getting to a computer until hours after registration opened at 6 a.m.

By the time she got on-line, the anatomy, microbiology, and phlebotomy classes she wanted were full, she said. She plans to sit-in on those classes anyway, waiting for drop-outs to create room.

Still, school officials said students who don't have early registration should not lose heart. The pinch for seats always is most acute in science classes, especially in prerequisites for health degrees, which often fill within days.

But general education classes will be available when registration opens to all, Traversi said, though they may start to disappear quickly.

"It behooves students who are new or returning to be really ready and prepared on July 18 so they don't have any barriers to get access to the classes that are left," she said.

In May, summer enrollment also got off to a quick start when 2,200 students signed up for classes on the first day of registration. That was 300 more than did so on the same day last year.

But administrators ended up seeing little evidence of students being turned away by full classes despite 16 percent fewer sections than last summer and cuts to public universities that promised to send more students to community college.

"Frankly, I anticipated and expected a lot more students trying to get into classes," said Mary Kay Rudolph, SRJC vice president of academic affairs. "We expected an onslaught; there hasn't been an onslaught."

Students may have skipped summer school to work, they may have been burned out or they may have given up without trying, Rudolph said. Or the school may have effectively targeted class reductions, protecting the sections most needed by students.

Some online classes, though, attracted hundreds of attempts to enroll after they were full — further evidence that students increasingly like such classes.

The allure of on-line has continued with fall enrollment. As Tuesday, 1,500 students had enrolled in on-line classes for this fall, up more than 40 percent from the same period last year.