Santa Rosa Junior College will begin giving priority to students seeking to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year university, part of a fundamental shift in the mission of the state's community college system.

The new policy, adopted Monday by the governing board of the state's 112-college system, is designed to preserve room for the most serious students as budget cuts force community colleges to trim classes and enrollment.

"They do represent substantial changes. For the most part, we think they're healthy changes," said Ricardo Navarrette, SRJC's vice president of student services.

Under the statewide policy, new students who have developed an education plan and completed their college orientation and assessment will be given priority to register for classes.

Existing students who are in good academic standing and have fewer than 100 units will also be favored during registration.

The changes signal a cultural shift within the community college system, which has traditionally welcomed residents taking classes for personal enrichment and made room for struggling students to repeat courses.

"We are in effect rationing education through the community colleges," Navarrette said. "The spirit of these requirements is to give priority to the students who are starting out, who need the units, who have defined educational goals and objectives and who have a timeline to accomplish it.

The new requirements take effect in fall 2014, although SRJC will begin phasing them in next spring.

It was not clear Tuesday how many SRJC students would be impacted by the changes.

"On the one hand, I think it gives them a map and a sense of direction," said SRJC teacher Anne Marie Insull. "But it is kind of good to just be here, and that is the worrying aspect. Not everyone has a plan, and sometimes college is a place to figure things out."

The changes, first recommended this year by a statewide task force, are intended to make it easier for students to reach their educational goals.

"In the past, community colleges have been able to serve everyone, and students could accrue a large number of units or do poorly in all of their courses and still receive priority registration," said Chancellor Jack Scott. "Now that colleges have had to cut back on the courses they can offer, those students were taking up seats in classrooms and crowding out newer students focused on job training, degree attainment or transfer."

Students at SRJC have already felt the crunch of fewer offerings. Some 26,480 students took classes at the initial enrollment period at Santa Rosa Junior College last spring, 3,400 fewer than a year earlier.

College officials will make a big push to educate current students about the new rules, and to give those on academic probation a chance to improve their grades and those nearing the cap on units to plan their remaining course schedules.

"We need to explain to students that forming an educational plan is vital and will help them navigate their way through college but also stress to them that it will flexible," said Jessica Jones, student body president at Santa Rosa Junior College.

"We have also stressed the need to redefine success. Success looks different to everybody," she said. "Courses such as art, theater, critical thinking and philosophy are very necessary to making a student a successful life-long learner."

The system's 72 locally administered districts will be required to establish an appeals process for students who lose registration priority for unforeseen reasons.

Among all groups, active duty military, veterans and former foster youth as well as low-income and disabled students will continue to have first preference for classes.

Most of the measures have been endorsed by academic and student organizations, but some critics argue they will hamper low-income and disadvantaged students, especially those unfamiliar with college.

"I can see how it would affect a newer student that isn't quite sure what they want to do," said SRJC student Karym Sanchez of Santa Rosa.

Sanchez graduated from high school in 2008 and has chipped away at his general education requirements as a a part-time student because he cannot afford to attend full time. Sanchez is two semesters away from leaving the junior college and hopes to study sociology at Sonoma State University.

"A lot of them come in not really sure what they want to do and they take classes to kind of get an idea," he said. "It's discouraging that sense of exploration of what you want to do."

But Fatima Mata of Rohnert Park said she shouldn't lose out on a class to make room for a student who has not crafted a roadmap through college.

"I don't think it's fair for those who are not on the same page as I am because I want to get out of here in two years," said Mata, who is eyeing San Diego State University and plans to study communications.

Community colleges can no longer afford to be all things to all people and must focus on student success, said Scott Himelstein, president of the community colleges board.

State funding has been cut by $809 million since 2008, forcing community colleges to eliminate classes and constrict enrollment. The community college system offered 399,540 classes during the last academic year, down from 522,727 three years earlier. As a result, overall enrollment dropped to 2.4 million last year, down from 2.9 million in the 2008-09 academic year.

More than 470,000 students across California began the fall semester on waiting lists, unable to get classes they need, according to a recent survey by the chancellor's office.

"We don't have as many resources as we used to and we've got to place some criteria around registration," Himelstein said. "This will place priority on students who are motivated and showing good progress above those who, in some cases quite frankly, are meandering through the system."

(Staff Writer Lori A. Carter and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report. Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit. blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.)