N.Va. College Applicants Face Extra Hurdle

Joe Robinson, his mother, Alison, and school counselor Mitch Aydlette check a list of students and the colleges they will probably attend. Joe's name isn't on the list.
Joe Robinson, his mother, Alison, and school counselor Mitch Aydlette check a list of students and the colleges they will probably attend. Joe's name isn't on the list. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 12, 2008

The news hit Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County right after spring vacation. "Joe Robinson got rejected by JMU?! How can that be?"

James Madison University in Harrisonburg is one of the best schools in Virginia, students, teachers and counselors agree. Most students would have trouble getting in. But this was Joe Robinson who got the thin envelope, the same Joe Robinson who had an SAT score of 2270, who was one of only two National Merit semifinalists in his class, who heads the choral group, who writes fantasy novels in his spare time, who had some of the most glowing teacher recommendations his counselor had ever seen.

"Everyone at Robinson who knows Joe" is "in disbelief," counselor Mitch Aydlette said in a written appeal of JMU's decision. The university had been his best hope, for the 17-year-old was rejected by the more selective schools on his list: the University of Virginia, Dartmouth College, Boston College, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Oxford.

This is a tough year for applicants to top colleges. Demographers say the number of high school graduates has reached a peak. Admission standards are higher, and well-regarded public universities such as JMU, charging much less than private colleges of similar quality, are particularly prized.

But Joe Robinson's failure to get into a university his family and advisers thought a cinch for someone with his record suggests to several experts that college applicants from Northern Virginia are facing unusually stiff competition -- increasingly from one another. The region, with an extraordinary concentration of high-performing schools and students, might have to adjust long-held assumptions about the power of scores and grades in college admissions.

JMU spokesman Don Egle said the university's admission process is "very competitive," with 20,000 applications this year for a class of 3,960. The university, he said, considers test scores, awards, recommendations, activities, grades and essays.

The one apparent flaw on Robinson's application was his 3.4 grade point average, when the JMU average is about 3.6. Fairfax doesn't use class rankings. He managed a 3.0 in ninth and 10th grade, when he was preoccupied with troubles a friend faced, two of his great-grandparents died and mononucleosis put him in bed for four weeks. Many selective schools tell applicants that if they finish strong in high school, mediocre early report cards won't mean so much. In the past two years, his GPA has been 4.1, and rising. With an SAT score among the top 10 percent for JMU students and literary skills that leave school faculty awestruck, Robinson's grades, Aydlette said he thought, would not be a problem.

"Among my 18 students who applied to JMU (7 admitted), I rate Joe as the finest overall scholar," Aydlette wrote in his appeal. Robinson Secondary, with about 4,000 students from grades 7 to 12, is the state's largest public school.

But Shirley Bloomquist, a former guidance director at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax who is now a college-admissions consultant, said many Northern Virginia families overlook that large numbers of students in the region have high test scores and good grades. Many of them, she said, are in competition with each other. The top state undergraduate institutions, such as U-Va., the College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech and JMU, also "cannot take all of their students from Northern Virginia," Bloomquist said. "They have to leave room" for students from other parts of the state.

On the role of geography in admissions, JMU's Egle said, "We are interested in the best high school students from all of the regions across the state." Greg Roberts, associate dean of admission at U-Va., said through a spokesman: "Our primary goal is to enroll an academically strong and diverse class of first-year and transfer students each year. As a state institution, we are interested in enrolling students from all areas of the commonwealth."

Robinson's SAT score of 2270, out of a possible 2400, looked terrific compared with the JMU average of about 1710. But experts said JMU's admissions officers expect high scores from Fairfax and will probably take just as close a look at a hardworking student with a lower SAT score from a place such as Galax, to the southwest, or Petersburg, south of Richmond.

The competition for spaces in state universities is also intensifying. "I believe the downturn in the economy this year has made public schools hotter than ever," said New York-based educational consultant William Short. David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the Alexandria-based National Association for College Admission Counseling, said JMU is an example of what many top students have long considered a good "safety" school. But he said, "We can see that it is not, in fact, a sure thing for these students anymore."

Bloomquist said she has expunged the term "safety school" from her vocabulary and speaks instead of "likely schools." In the past few years, she said, "I have become very conservative." Even for students with records as good as Robinson's, she said, she might suggest adding to their lists state universities such as Christopher Newport in Newport News or George Mason in Fairfax, just north of Robinson Secondary. That would force students to apply to more colleges, but several experts said expanding the pool of likely admissions prospects seems better than what happened to Joe Robinson.

In the meantime, some Virginia lawmakers have called for tighter limits on the number of out-of-state students. But the higher out-of-state tuition, $8,693 this year at JMU compared with $3,333 for in-state students, helps pay faculty salaries as the state government grapples with lean budgets amid a difficult economy. The governing boards of each state university in Virginia decide how many out-of-state students will be admitted. At JMU, the ratio is 70 percent in-state and 30 percent out-of-state.

Students in Robinson's situation are not without options. Often, they can seek admission in the late spring to colleges that still have openings. If his appeal to JMU is denied, Robinson said, he might spend a year at a community college and then try again, focusing next time on Notre Dame. His school's principal, Dan Meier, a former counselor, said he has talked to Robinson about his rejections and wonders why more room for Virginia students can't be found.

"I have been frustrated by this for many years," Meier said. "We have such wonderful state colleges, but it is so difficult for our students to get into them."

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