TAMPA — Sade Duncan is the kind of nervous college senior it's easy to find at the University of South Florida these days.
She hopes to take five courses this summer on her way to a bachelor's degree in education.
But when registration for summer and fall courses opens Monday, Duncan will wait while students with the highest GPAs sign up for classes first.
"Having to wait to register kind of brings fear to me because I know if I don't get in I'm pushed back another semester," said Duncan, 22, of Tampa.
Welcome to the latest change in campus culture at USF. In recent years, the university has raised admissions standards, built new dorms and added academic advisers to help students graduate on time.
Now it is taking an unusual step to reward academic achievement. Students who have completed at least 12 credit hours and have a grade point average of 3.75 or better will get their choice of seats on the first day of registration.
"If you are performing well, you will get through your courses in the sequence you need and at the time you need," USF registrar Angela DeBose said.
Historically, it didn't work that way. Generally, seniors got to register first, followed by juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Grades didn't matter.
About 2,500 USF students have grades good enough to move to the head of the line under the new system. By comparison, there are 28,120 undergraduates registered on the Tampa campus this spring.
And yes, the change will allow straight-A freshmen to register before seniors like Duncan, who has a 3.0 GPA.
Seniors shouldn't worry, administrators say. They typically don't compete for classes with freshmen and sophomores and will still register early in the process. And the bottlenecks generally don't form in the most crowded courses until juniors and sophomores get in the mix.
"The seniors will get the courses they need," says Glen Besterfield, an administrator who worked on the new policy.
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This isn't being done at the University of Florida or Florida State, though GPA does play a role in determining a student's place in line at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Not surprisingly, USF student reaction to the change is mixed.
"It's very unfortunate for the people who do not fall within the category of registering the first day, especially those that are right below the mark," said Metrifa Williams, 18, an accounting major with a 3.6 grade point average. Because of dual enrollment courses she took in high school, she arrived at USF last fall as a sophomore.
But for Williams, the difference between a 3.6 and a 3.75 is the difference between registering on Day 1 and registering on Day 12, when sophomores with GPAs between 3 and 3.74 can begin to sign up for courses.
She worries about not getting two classes she needs, "which will set me back."
Some students, including engineering majors and those in the College of Business, say it's harder to get an A in their programs than in other disciplines, DeBose said.
As an accounting major, Williams is in one of the programs at USF that's full, Besterfield said.
Other courses that tend to fill up are in the sciences: organic chemistry, biology, genetics, sometimes general chemistry. This is largely due to the scarcity of labs. It's also why USF is spending $93 million to construct its biggest building ever for science teaching and research.
Junior Luke Richardson of Tampa thinks the change is a good idea.
"For me, it works out pretty well," said Richardson, 21, an accounting major with a 4.0 GPA. "I work hard."
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Still, Richardson said he understands why other students are anxious.
In Tampa, USF has a lot more seniors (13,000), than juniors (8,000), sophomores (4,000) or freshmen (3,000).
The senior class is so large, in part, because USF gets twice as many transfer students as freshmen.
But USF's graduation rate also lags behind those of other leading Florida universities. Just 48 percent of USF students earn a bachelor's degree within six years.
A big reason for this is the working-class backgrounds of many USF students. They tend to need more financial aid than their counterparts in Gainesville or Tallahassee. Nearly a quarter of USF seniors work off-campus more than 30 hours a week.
So won't letting these 2,500 brainiacs register first hurt those 13,000 seniors?
No, administrators say.
"There are very few students who have not been able to progress in their degree programs because they could not get classes," said Tapas Das, associate provost for policy analysis, planning and performance. Often, those complaints come from students who already have earned one bachelor's degree and are pursuing a second or are taking courses to prepare for a licensure exam.
He said only 44 percent of USF's graduating seniors registered on their priority dates under the previous scheme.
Students do complain about not getting classes they need when they need them. Administrators say the "when they need them" part is important. Often it means when they want them (not early in the morning, not on Friday).
So as part of its efforts to raise graduation rates, USF has expanded course schedules to make better use of classrooms. Provost Ralph Wilcox likes to say it used to be easy to find a parking space at USF on Fridays. Now it's not.
Administrators also say they have added sections when courses fill up quickly. Last summer, they added nearly 200 seats to relieve a bottleneck in organic chemistry.
Seniors who can't get a class they need to graduate should talk to their departments, Besterfield said. Administrators want to help them graduate and may be able to work out an alternative.
While such problems might crop up over the next semester or two, Das said students will figure out how to make the new system work for them.
"This is a very serious change in culture," he said, with more to come. "We're going to provide the students the help they need, and we're going to demand that they perform accordingly. We're going to have very little room for nonperformance."
Freshman nursing student Debbie Babilonia said she gets the message.
"Yeah, it's, like, going to put more stress on me now," said Babilonia, 18, who is from Puerto Rico. "Now I'm probably going to have to work, like, 10 times harder."
Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.