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UW, Western deny top students Record numbers apply to colleges

The class of 2008 hasn’t had it easy. On top of new WASL requirements and being the first class required to complete an 80-hour culminating project for graduation, it is one of the most populous classes in Island history, which means tough competition when applying to college.

Mercer Island High School has 368 seniors graduating this year, the highest number in 20 years. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, other state schools are not far off: Bellevue High School has 348 seniors this year, Garfield High School in Seattle has 368, and Newport High School has 392.

A significant number of these students are applying to the same colleges: the University of Washington, Western Washington University, Seattle University and Washington State University, among other schools.

“We have over 20,000 applicants this year, 12 percent more than last year,” said Philip Ballinger, director of admissions at the University of Washington, adding that he was well aware of the demographic boom.

“The number of students in this generation is, historically speaking, very large. And this year is the peak, or close to the peak, of that boom,” he said. “What this means is you have very good students applying to very good schools at numbers greater than in the past, but space [availability] hasn’t expanded proportionally.”

Once a somewhat assured college for Mercer Island students, many of this year’s seniors were wait-listed or even rejected from the UW. Not because they were under-qualified, as Ballinger pointed out, but because there were simply too many in the bid.

“I have difficult conversations with parents [in which] I tell them that the primary reason their child was rejected has nothing to do with his or her ability to be successful but because so many kids are applying,” the director said. “We can’t admit nearly enough students in terms of their ability to do well.”

The University of Washington enrolled 5,300 freshmen in 2007. This year, the school increased its limit to 5,500.

Ballinger, however, will not know official admission numbers until next week. Students were required to postmark their acceptance letters on May 1. Now it is the university’s turn to wait.

Meanwhile, MIHS seniors are getting comfortable with the names of their future schools, even if not their first choice.

“My [choice college] was a tie between the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, but I ended up not getting into either of them,” said MIHS senior Ari Schorr, who accepted enrollment at the University of Michigan. “I was kind of upset not getting into North Carolina, but once I went to visit Michigan, I knew that was the place I wanted to be.”

Few students end up being disappointed with their second-choice, said MIHS college counselor M.J. Hillstrom. In fact, most end up smitten with the school.

“When they don’t get into their dream school, I say ‘let’s fall in love with some of those other choices,’” said Hillstrom.

This year, the “biggest surprises” are coming from the University of Washington, she added.

“There were about six or seven students who were either denied or wait-listed, and their parents are asking me what to do,” Hillstrom said. “Our families don’t take UW for granted. They know it’s a solid education and is in-state and public.”

If denied from the University of Washington, many students will choose another state school -- usually Western, Seattle University or Washington State -- since in-state schools are financially sound alternatives.

“Most often, when families are having a tough time making that final decision, it’s based on finances,” Hillstrom said.

Indeed, the trend to apply to state-schools has been heightened by the faltering state of the economy. Parents, wary of their pocket books, are encouraging their children to apply to state schools and avoid out-of-state tuition costs.

“When the economy is in quesiton, families turn to public schools. I don’t doubt that’s what we’re facing now,” Hillstrom said.

Western Washington University is a popular alternative to UW. Last year, 67 MIHS graduates enrolled at the UW and 50 at Western.

However, student competition is also being felt at Western. Like the UW, the Bellingham school has had to wait-list more students than usual.

“In 2007, 8,850 students applied. We had about 700 more applicants this year and put 400 students on the wait-list,” said admissions representative Kayle Walls. “We under-admitted this year and put more kids on the wait-list, as cushion room.”

Not every MIHS student, however, wants to stay within Washington. Some seniors want to get as far away from home as possible. Others prioritize campus size, social reputation and academic programs when making their final decision.

“The fun part when I talk to students, is saying ‘Isn’t it nice to have some choices? Lets talk beyond your first quarter. Let’s talk about finding a college that prepares you for the next bridge in life,” Hillstrom said.

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