Fairfax County school officials, angry that the prestigious University of Virginia is denying admission to many of the county's best high school graduates, are considering relaxing their grade standards to give more students a chance of being accepted at the state school.
"Very, very good students are getting turned down," Fairfax School Board Chairman Mary E. Collier said yesterday. "We need to be sure we give our students every advantage."
Collier said the county school system, the 10th largest in the nation, should consider abolishing class rankings, a major factor in competition for admissions to selective universities.
Virginia state college educators have said that they do not impose quotas on Northern Virginia students. But some concede that because large numbers of the region's students score so well in all areas of admissions standards, they could fill their entering classes with suburban Washington students.
Collier and other School Board members said the University of Virginia has an unwritten quota on Northern Virginia students, which means that Fairfax County graduates are forced to meet a higher standard than those from other parts of the state.
"We don't have quotas on regions," said John A. Blackburn, the university's dean of admissions. Replied Collier: "I don't believe it."
The University of Virginia, ranked in a recent college poll as among the best "public Ivies" in the nation, has become more popular than ever this year, with 16,200 applicants vying for 4,200 openings. That is an increase of 2,000 applications over last year. It has meant that more students than ever were rejected, creating a furor in Fairfax County, which sends 80 percent of its high school graduates to college.
Blackburn said the rejection rate at the university was so high because "it was more difficult this year. There was no ulterior motive of trying to balance around the state."
He said the university admitted 40 percent of its freshman class from Northern Virginia, a higher percentage than should be admitted based on population alone. Blackburn said the university took into ac- count that Fairfax County is a more difficult school system than others in the state.
Although rejections are up at most Virginia state colleges, Fairfax County officials say the University of Virginia rejection rate is the most disturbing.
Applications to state colleges have increased across the country this year, even though the pool of college-bound 18-to-24-year-olds is shrinking, according to Susan Ransdell of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. She credits the increase in applications to the state schools' relatively low tuition in an era of federal student aid reductions, and to their growing emphasis on academic excellence.
The cost of attending the University of Virginia next year -- including tuition and room and board -- will be $4,824 for Virginia residents, a fraction of the price of attending most major private universities.
South Lakes High School senior Doug Levin is one of those students who thought he had an easy shot at the University of Virginia: a 3.4 grade-point average, a total of 1,300 out of 1,600 possible points on his Scholastic Aptitude Test, and an appealing list of extracurricular activities. Levin was admitted to three state colleges and Johns Hopkins University, but the University of Virginia put him on its waiting list.
"I have friends there now, and I don't think their stats were better than mine," Levin said. "It's just incredible . . . . If we all lived in Syria, Va. [a small town in the Shenandoah Mountains], we would have gotten in."
Levin "looked around at all my friends, and they didn't get in either." In response, he and about a dozen other South Lakes students in Reston formed their own mock extracurricular activity, the "U-Va. Boo Crew."
At McLean's Langley High School, where 90 percent of the graduates go on to four-year colleges, the University of Virginia's rejection rate created so much consternation that Principal James Manning dispatched letters to parents. He wrote that the university should consider expanding its entering class or should admit a higher percentage of Virginia students. About 35 percent of the college's student body is from out of state.
The Fairfax County school system's grading scale gives an A -- and the top numerical ranking of 4 -- to students with scores of 94 to 100. Collier said students in some other school systems in the state are given As with scores of 93 or less. Collier said Fairfax should consider dropping the minimum needed to earn an A to a score of 90, and the minimum needed for a B to 80, from the current 84.
"If an A in Fairfax County is harder to get than an A in the rest of the state, then we ought to look at it," she said.
Collier and some other school officials said they believed that the university should admit fewer out-of-state applicants, particularly because the school is financed in large part by Virginia taxpayers.