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Lita Gonzalez, 49, wants to work as a nurse before she retires.

Under new admissions criteria for Salt Lake Community College's health-profession programs, she is more likely to reach that goal, although she'll have to compete for her seat.

In a dramatic departure from past practice, the college's School of Health Sciences will give priority to students who demonstrate the best chance of success in associate's-degree programs for nurses, dental hygienists and radiological technicians. Criteria announced Tuesday replace a first-come, first-served system that resulted in multiyear wait lists.

Admission will now require earning superior grades in chemistry, biology and other prerequisite courses and a high score on a new aptitude test, known by the acronym HESI.

"It makes more sense if you have to get through the classes with high grades than when they would take someone who took the class 10 times to get a passing grade," said Gonzalez. "This is my last shot. I better do well if I go back [to school]."

She completed her nursing prerequisites last spring, with As in every course except chemistry. But SLCC closed its applications before she could get on the five-year wait list for the nursing program while officials overhauled the admissions process. Officials will reopen applications this spring for admission in January 2013.

The goal of the new system is to ensure students are academically prepared, as well as committed and well-suited to a profession when they enter high-demand health programs, according to Loredana Haeger, SLCC's health sciences dean. Currently hundreds of students are on wait lists of up to nine years, depending on the program. The college promised to honor wait-listed students' start dates, but they will no longer be moved up in line as those ahead of them drop out.

"It's not a question of rewarding one and not the other, but if someone is successful in these courses, they have an opportunity to start the program earlier. It depends if they are up against applicants who are as strong as they are," Haeger said. Taking a class for a second time to get a higher grade can work against your chances, while holding a college degree or relevant work experience could help.

Applicants who are not admitted will need to reapply for a shot the next semester. The college is also ending deferred admissions for health programs, so once they're admitted, students will have to stay enrolled or lose their place.

Each semester, the college admits 80 new students into the nursing program. As people abandon the waiting list, their seats will be open to those applying under the new rules, and competition could be fierce for the first few years. Anyone on the wait lists can apply for those openings without jeopardizing their place in line.

In adopting new guidelines, SLCC is aligning its policies with community colleges around the nation, including nearby Utah Valley University, for guiding admissions into low-cost programs that provide credentials for entry-level positions in health care fields.

To be among the 40 admitted each semester to UVU's associate's-level nursing program, students must clear two big hurdles. Candidates must complete prerequisite courses, with no grades lower than a B-minus and without taking any one course more than twice in the preceding five years. They must also take the Test of Essential Academic Skills, or TEAS. Top-achievers get an interview. Those interviewed for admission this fall had a minimum GPA of 3.55 and a mean TEAS score of 84 out of 100.

While SLCC's new system makes getting admitted tougher, it removes some of the uncertainty and gives pre-nursing students like Kim Miller a little more control over their destiny.

"The wait list was ridiculous and inefficient, and I anticipate that for those of us with the grades to compete, this change will be great," she wrote in a recent post on a student community forum. A former U.S. Postal Service worker, Miller took a big chance last spring when she quit her job after nine years and started taking classes this fall.

"I could leave my job and complete the prerequisites and then languish for three to five years on a waiting list," said Miller, who is married with a 3-year-old daughter and two teenage stepchildren.

Gonzalez earned a bachelor's degree in geography at Utah State University in 1986 and had worked in the hotel industry for two decades when she decided to return to school two years ago. Studying side-by-side with students half her age was daunting at first, but she has outperformed many of the youngsters and made good friends.

"I was worried at first because I figured my brain is not as sharp as theirs," she said. "Even if I never become a nurse it would be worth it because I enjoyed it so much." New admissions criteria

Salt Lake Community College is overhauling admissions criteria for its health programs. Key points:

Multiyear waiting lists for nursing, radiological technology and other high-demand associate's degree programs in health fields will be phased out in favor of a competitive process that puts the onus on students to get high marks in prerequisites and on a new aptitude exam.

Nursing is the largest program, with 80 new admissions each semester, but radiology technology and dental hygiene are popular, too. The new nursing application deadline is June 15 to enter in the spring of 2013. Those on the wait list will still get their start dates, but are invited to apply for earlier admission. Applicants must complete all prerequisites with a C or better and take the HESI A2 exam with a score of at least 75.

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