Michael Copeland left for college last week with the usual butterflies and a lot of dreams.

One thing he didn't have was a high school diploma.

Copeland, 18, didn't graduate in June because he did not pass Virginia's Standards of Learning exams. For the first time this year, Virginia seniors had to pass six tests, or state-approved substitutes, for a diploma. Copeland was one of 32 Prince William County students who did not pass the SOL exams.

Copeland, a standout running back for the Gar-Field Senior High School football team, repeated the two tests he failed -- the SOL reading and writing tests -- several times in the days leading up to his graduation, but he fell short each time. He promised to stick with summer school and keep trying.

Two weeks ago, he finally passed the SOL reading test, raising hopes that he might get a diploma at Prince William's summer school graduation Friday. But he learned Monday that he did not pass the ACT WorkKeys exam, a test Virginia lets seniors use in place of the SOL writing exam.

After a long summer of classes, the results were disappointing, Copeland said. Even so, he's ready for college and has not given up his goal of playing football.

Tuesday, he left for Kansas, where a registrar confirmed that he is enrolled at Garden City Community College for the fall. The school, which is the oldest community college in the state, is known for its football team, which often propels students to four-year university teams.

Copeland will try out for the team, which is allowed to keep 12 out-of-state students on its 55-player roster. With or without football, he said he wants to major in education and earn a degree.

"It's time for me to get away from home, basically grow up and be a man," Copeland said.

The community college route might be a good option for students who, like Copeland, were not able to graduate because they didn't pass their SOL exams, said Northern Virginia Community College President Robert G. Templin Jr.

Templin said NVCC admits anyone older than 18 -- even those without a high school diploma -- assuming their performance on the college's assessment exams show they're ready for college-level work. Even if the exam results show they still need work, he said, community colleges often will help students bring their skills up to par. Students can continue taking the SOL exams they need for a high school diploma, even while pursuing an associate's degree.

"We hope that by having this option open, students don't feel like their only option is to repeat the same course that has not been successful for them in the past," he said. "We're not encouraging students not to finish their SOLs, but this is an option."

Steve Quakenbush, a spokesman for the Kansas community college, said it has similar admissions policies. "We're really here to give students access to higher education," he said.

About 100 students in the Northern Virginia area did not graduate in June because of their SOL results. And others needed to complete course work for a diploma.

Maria Copeland said she was pleased with the extra help her son received through summer school. His teacher worked with him, and he also took an online tutorial that allowed her to log on and check his progress daily.

He's also been trying to raise his SAT scores. As of June, his top combined score was a 490 -- far below what he would need to qualify to play NCAA football. But Maria Copeland said her son took the test again this summer and scored a 690, much closer to the 820 he needs to attend a Division II school. She booked airplane tickets for Kansas even before knowing the results of his SOL tests.

"Anybody can quit and give up. That's easy. To go on and go to school, that says a lot about him," she said. "That shows character and determination."

But she said the situation remains frustrating. She wants her son to get a high school diploma and to do so, he can keep retaking the one exam he needs. But she questioned how many times he should keep trying.

"When is enough?" she asked.

Maria Copeland helps son Michael, 18, pack. Despite not graduating from high school because he failed the SOL exams, he will attend Garden City Community College in Kansas. Michael Copeland's brother Austin, 11, helps his sibling close a suitcase. Copeland failed the SOL tests but is college-bound anyway.