In commenting last Friday on admissions policy at the University of Virginia, we inadvertently exaggerated the number of students enrolled from Fairfax County. Out of 11,195 undergraduates at the university last fall, 2,641 were from Fairfax and Arlington counties and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax. It remains true that Northern Virginia is overrepresented at the university, although not so heavily overrepresented as we suggested.
In this year's college admissions sweepstakes, a good many bright and capable youngsters from Fairfax County have been turned down by the University of Virginia. Because the university is a public institution, there is a political reaction. Seized by the passions of the moment, the customarily sensible chairman of the county school board, Mary E. Collier, has been talking about deliberately debasing the schools' grading standards to provide more A's on report cards. Other school officials angrily say that the university ought to be expanded, or the number of students from other states reduced, to make more room for applicants from Fairfax.
Those are all terrible ideas. The university does an unusually good job of educating undergraduates because the state has understood the importance of scale and -- unlike many states -- has not allowed the university's freshman class to swell to unmanageable size. Instead, to accommodate rising applications, it has founded other state universities, such as George Mason in Fairfax. Similarly, admitting students from other parts of the country is an antidote to parochialism and good for the Virginia students. As for the suggestion to inflate grades, it would have the same effect as inflating currency. Buyers -- in this case, university admissions officers -- would quickly learn to anticipate and discount it.
Geographical representation at Charlottesville is severely skewed, but it is skewed in favor of Northern Virginia. Last fall 10,288 undergraduates were enrolled at the univeristy, of whom 3,090 came from Fairfax County alone. In comparison, only 12 percent of the state's population lives in the county. The reason for the disproportionate number of admissions to the university is obvious. A wealthy county and well-educated arents have built schools that are extremely effective in preparing young people for selective colleges.
But that raises a question of equality of opportunity for students from other parts of the state less well served by their schools. Youngsters from small rural schools, from which few graduates go to college, do not compete on equal terms with the products of high schools such as Fairfax's. Any university, public or private, needs to take those disparities into account. If the University of Virginia is open to reproach, it is not for giving Fairfax too little consideration but rather too much. High school seniors who have been disappointed by this April's mail are entitled to much sympathy. But there are other promising choices for them within the state's university system. It's not the number of kids admitted to Charlottesville that counts, but the strength of the college and university system as a whole.