Seattle Times: Why straight-A’s may not get you into UW this year

**This post is from 2011.**

Soon after the University of Washington’s acceptance letters for undergraduate admission went out in the mail last month, the rumors started flying at local high schools.

High-school seniors with top test scores didn’t get in.

Students who got into more prestigious schools were wait-listed at the UW.

Valedictorians with straight-A’s were denied admission, while out-of-state students with lower grades were accepted.

Turns out all those rumors are true.

A series of worsening revenue forecasts and a $5 billion state budget shortfall have made it even more likely that the Legislature will again slash higher-education funding this year. So in February, top academic leaders at the UW made a painful decision to cut the number of Washington students the school will admit this fall to its main Seattle campus and increase the number of nonresident students, who pay nearly three times as much in tuition and fees.

“When the decision was made, it was not a happy one,” said Philip Ballinger, the UW’s admissions director. “There were real debates, and internal reluctance to the last minute.”

The UW has offered spots in fall 2011 to about 5,700 Washington students so far, hundreds fewer than last year. Many more nonresidents — out-of-state and international students combined — have been offered a spot for fall.

The decision is based squarely on economics: Nonresident students in effect subsidize the education of Washington residents, providing a much-needed boost in revenue at a time the UW could see its funding cut by $200 million over the next biennium.

The UW expects about 3,850 in-state students to eventually enroll, making up about 70 percent of the freshman class. Last year, they made up 73 percent.

Among the students rejected: Brandon Stover, a valedictorian at Chief Sealth High School, who has a 4.0 grade-point average.

“It was just a shock,” Stover said. “I don’t know exactly what the UW is looking for.”

Stover, who wants to go to the UW’s Foster School of Business, took a few rigorous International Baccalaureate classes at Sealth, but focused his efforts on the school’s Academy of Finance because those classes most closely dovetailed with his goal to major in business administration.

Because the West Seattle resident needs to live at home and work to make ends meet, he did not apply to other colleges. He’s appealing his rejection, but also is considering going to South Seattle Community College or UW-Bothell next fall, and then trying to transfer to the UW.

Signal to families

Edmonds-Woodway High School teacher Dave Quinn said the UW did a good job trying to signal to families that admission was going to be much, much harder this year. But not everyone took it to heart.

“There were certain families in our community that just counted on” getting accepted, said Quinn, an instructor in the school’s college-level International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Some students who didn’t get in had taken a full slate of IB classes, with “a GPA that sings, and 150 hours of community service” — natural candidates for admission in any other year.

“There are a number of families who are distraught about this,” echoed Linda Jacobs, a private college counselor. “They thought they were a shoo-in.”

For Ballinger, who has had to respond to the frustrations of countless families, the challenge has been explaining that if the UW didn’t admit more out-of-state and international students, it would have had to cut the number of in-state students even more.

“People think they’re taking the place of resident students; they’re not,” he said. “They’re subsidizing resident students … . I don’t think people understand that.”

“The culture of this place is public to the bone,” he added. “For us to be in a position where we have to cut back enrollment in Washington here, and take more students from out of state — that is an ugly conversation.”

Elsewhere in the U.S., as state funding has shrunk, other flagship universities have aggressively courted out-of-state students to make up for lost revenue — notably, the University of Oregon, where 47 percent of the school’s freshmen were from out of state in 2010, and the University of Colorado, Boulder, where 43 percent of freshmen were from out of state.

Although the UW’s numbers might suggest otherwise, nonresidents need a stronger academic record than in-state students to gain admission, Ballinger said.

Out-of-state students tend to have slightly lower GPAs, but that’s because many come from top public and private schools where there’s less grade inflation. And their SAT scores are usually higher.

International students often have math SAT scores that outpace all U.S. students — scoring 700 points or more out of 800 — and many get a perfect score.

“They’re not alone”

Both Quinn and Jacobs, the private college counselor, say many families are failing to make the connection between state budget cuts and a lower admission rate.

“One of the most important things for our kids to hear is that they’re not alone” if they didn’t get into the UW, Quinn said. Chances are, they didn’t get in “because of some decision somebody made in Olympia.”

While the numbers are still changing, so far this year about 56 percent of in-state applicants have been admitted, compared with 62 percent last year.

Although every public university in Washington is facing the same cutbacks, they are not all trimming their freshman class.

Washington State University boosted the number of in-state freshmen it admitted this year by about 13 percent, expecting to enroll about 400 more freshmen in fall 2011 than it did last year, said John Fraire, vice president of enrollment management. To make room, the school will have to stretch housing and classrooms, he said.

“Even in light of the crisis, we’ve made a commitment to grow instead of shrink,” he said.

Ballinger said the UW did not make that choice because taking as many in-state students as it did last year while absorbing budget cutbacks would hurt the school’s quality.

Western Washington University saw a decrease in the number of students who applied this year, perhaps because the school cut its recruitment efforts as a cost-saving measure. It expects to enroll fewer freshmen as a result.

Central Washington University expects fewer freshmen to enroll — in part because tuition is going up — and plans to recruit more out-of-state students next year.

Leaving the state

In Washington, more high-school graduates leave this state for college and other postsecondary study than come here from out-of-state as freshmen, said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.

That net out-migration, as it’s termed, is the fifth-highest nationally among the states, and is a concern among policymakers, who fear the state’s failure to grow its higher-education system will have long-term economic consequences.

One of the fixes to the state’s higher-education financial problem is almost sure to be even higher tuition for resident students; indeed, some Washington parents whose children were denied admission to the UW have asked if they can pay out-of-state tuition to get their students in, Ballinger said. (The answer is no.)

Washington is one of the few states where the Legislature sets tuition, and how high it should go is a matter of debate. Tuition and fees for an in-state undergraduate at the UW Seattle campus run to $8,701 a year while a nonresident pays $25,329.

Carlyle is sponsoring a bill, HB 1795, that aims to change the funding equation. It would give the state’s four-year schools unlimited tuition-setting authority for four years, encouraging them to set different prices on different degrees.

For example, the UW might charge more for an engineering degree than a history degree because engineering students must take many expensive lab classes and usually earn more when they graduate.

The bill would also raise the level at which a family becomes eligible for financial aid, helping more middle-class families qualify, Carlyle said.

Another bill, HB 1666, would give the state’s four-year schools limited tuition-setting authority. The proposal would blunt the impact on lower- and middle-income families by creating a private financial-aid endowment.

Carlyle has heard from “fantastically qualified kids from Ballard High School, with extraordinary grades, whose parents have paid taxes for decades, and can’t get into the UW.

“It’s just not right,” he said.

Ballinger agreed.

“Right now, it just stings,” he said “There’s no getting around it.”

By Katherine Long

Seattle Times higher education reporter