WILLIAMSBURG -- A proposal a few years ago to double the seating capacity of William and Mary's football stadium provoked protests from more than 1,000 students and faculty, who boycotted classes and disrupted an anniversary of America's second-oldest institution of higher education.

No one at the college, nestled at the edge of Colonial Williamsburg, can imagine how Virginia Tech, its sister institution, got itself into the position of being chastised by the governor last month for putting athletics ahead of academics.

At The College of William and Mary in Virginia, a name that dates to its 1693 charter from King William III and Queen Mary II, academics always come first -- so much so that the school is considered by many to be the best public college in the nation.

And one of the best-kept secrets.

"A lot of people don't know, or believe, that we are a state institution," said Admissions Director G. Gary Ripple, who recalled having to explain to a group of preparatory school parents in Georgetown why tuition is lower for Virginia residents.

The school also takes a back seat, in the minds of many Virginians, to "Mr. Jefferson's school," the University of Virginia.

Though Thomas Jefferson founded U-Va., people here like to point out that he was educated (along with presidents James Monroe and John Tyler) at William and Mary, which, as the nation's second oldest college, after Harvard, calls itself "Alma Mater to the Nation."

Those in the know, know about William and Mary.

In his 1985 book, "The Public Ivys," Richard Moll wrote that William and Mary "can make a good case for being the most selective public college in America. Its size -- 4,400 undergraduates, 1,600 graduates -- is ideal, the envy of a good many prestigious private colleges."

William and Mary earned the maximum five stars in the "Selective Guide to Colleges," by Edward B. Fiske, the education editor of The New York Times. Fiske also included it in his "Best Buys in College Education." And a poll by U.S. News & World Report ranked it 17th among all American universities, public or private.

Northern Virginia supplies about one-half the Virginians who make up two-thirds of William and Mary's enrollment. Ripple said the high acceptance rate (47 percent) of applicants from Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria reflects "a heavier concentration of highly qualified applicants," which he said can be traced partly to "the educational backgrounds of their parents."

Kevin Foster of Springfield, a national champion 119-pound wrestler at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, considered Northwestern, Columbia, Hofstra and especially the University of Missouri, because of its wrestling team. But after visiting Missouri, Foster worried that "my academics would be allowed to slip" if he made the team. He had no such qualms about William and Mary: During a campus visit, the wrestling coach "insisted that I attend some classes, to emphasize the academics." That convinced Foster, who scored 1,210 on his Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) and will major in English in preparation for a career in radio journalism.

Sarah Ahn of McLean, who graduated from Langley High last month, visited William and Mary more than a year ago, when her older sister was looking for a college (she chose Johns Hopkins). Ahn, who was born in Korea, said she "thought it was a really great place," so she applied under its early decision plan and was accepted.

Thomas Volz, a National Merit Scholar from James Madison High School in Vienna who will be a freshman in the fall, said he chose William and Mary over three other schools that accepted him because of its size (it's smaller than Cornell and Virginia) and its relatively low cost ($6,024 for Virginians and $10,035 for out-of-staters).

The only negative response he heard about his decision, Volz said, was from some friends who said, "Oh, you didn't get in U-Va.?"

"U-Va. clearly is our major competitor" for students, said Ripple, adding that half of all William and Mary applicants also apply to the Charlottesville school.

Statistics suggest it is a bit more difficult to get into William and Mary than into U-Va., which is twice as large.

In selecting the freshman class of 1987, for example, William and Mary's admissions office chose from a record 9,185 applicants. To get a class of 1,200 freshmen, it offered admission to 25 percent, or 2,300 of them, of whom 52 percent accepted.

At U-Va., 28.7 percent, or 4,654, of 16,227 applicants received offers, and 2,583, or 55.5 percent, accepted.

By several other criteria, the two schools are quite similar.

A slightly higher percentage (78 to 76 percent) of William and Mary students graduate in four years, and similarly, its pre-med majors have a higher acceptance rate (70 to 61 percent) to medical school. On the SATs, U-Va. students have slipped ahead of William and Mary in recent years.

Among students accepted by both William and Mary and U-Va., three of five pick U-Va., which Ripple attributes to "the more comprehensive nature of the school. There is not as big a market for a school that offers only a liberal arts curriculum."

Another difference, Ripple said, is that U-Va. "represents a much more social experience," which, in the student vernacular, means it is Party School USA. U-Va. still deserves that reputation, according to a U-Va. spokesman, but with four alcohol-related student deaths last year, no one brags about it anymore.

By contrast, William and Mary is no one's idea of a party school. "S and M" is how one U-Va. student described it to Moll. A Virginia graduate said, "a B at W&M is an A at U-Va."

One thing no one brags about at William and Mary, or U-Va., is its minority enrollment. There were only 230 blacks, or 4.6 percent, on campus last year, up from 101 nine years ago, according to a document sent by the state to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights last month.

Efforts to increase black enrollment include a plan, now nearly complete, to allow students at Northern Virginia Community College to take courses that would allow them to transfer automatically to William and Mary after two years. Two black admissions officers also were hired to recruit minority students.

After U-Va., William and Mary's No. 1 competitor for students is Duke, followed by two other Virginia schools, James Madison and Tech. The top 12 is filled out with North Carolina, Georgia, five Ivys -- Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth -- and Stanford.

Ripple said the admissions office has "convinced a lot of upper-middle-income parents that it is not necessary to look to the northeast and the Ivys for a good education." For example, he said, William and Mary "costs about one-third of Harvard or Brown," and over four years, the $50,000 differential "is harder to justify." Because it is smaller, it is more expensive than other state schools: At U-Va., the annual cost is $5,066 for state students, and $8,496 for non-Virginians.

"We have no ambition to be everybody's school," said Paul R. Verkuil, a 1961 graduate who returned as the college's 25th president two years ago. He had taught law here, at North Carolina and at Tulane, where he also was the law school dean.

William and Mary attracts "the highest quality student body of any public institution in the country. We bring in very bright students and just hope we don't screw them up," Verkuil said.

Verkuil said the student protest against the stadium expansion in 1979 effectively thrust greatness upon the school, forcing it to "play teams more like us academically."

The William and Mary football schedule typically includes two Ivy League schools and small eastern independents such as Colgate, along with longtime rivals Richmond and Virginia Military Institute.

But to "give our kids the opportunity to play in one big game," athletic director John Randolph said, he still schedules one football power, usually Virginia, each year.

Noting that William and Mary athletes boast a better than 80 percent graduation rate, Randolph said, "that's our definition of success." But he couldn't resist pointing out that in last fall's football game, William and Mary beat Virginia, 41-37.