Words guaranteed to freeze the blood of any local middle-class parent of a teenager: “The University of Washington is now officially a stretch school.” That’s what a high school counselor recently told the Eastside mother of a rising high school senior—and what more and more students are hearing. By “stretch,” the counselor means, “Most kids don’t have a prayer of becoming a Husky.” In other words, the UW is no longer a “safety school”—a relatively good bet for decent students.
These days, admission to the UW requires a sterling grade point average, top test scores, a report card loaded with challenging classes and a flawless application. And there had better be some meaningful extracurricular activities on that application, too. (Note to families of stellar high school football players: This probably does not apply to you.) How did this come to pass?
To quote a phrase from a former presidential campaign: It’s the economy, stupid. To shore up deeply slashed funding, the UW has done what some locals are viewing as anathema, upping acceptances for out-of-state-students who pay much more for tuition, cutting the number of locals accepted by 150. In-state students pay $8,700 this year, versus $25,330 for out-of-staters. The result? Instant flashpoint for the public, fed by media reports of Seattle high school valedictorians with perfect 4.0 grade point averages (GPAs) being rejected by the UW. Many may have missed the fine point enunciated by the university: that even more state students would have been rejected if not subsidized by the revenue brought in by the out-of-state or international students.
State Representative Reuven Carlyle (D-36th District), can hardly visit his constituency these days without being besieged by tax-paying families distraught over the situation, which is unlikely to change for several years, at least. Carlyle, a member of the Ways and Means Committee (which writes the state budget), has been deeply involved in finding ways and means to fund higher education in the state. But you can’t get blood out of a stone, and cuts have been both deep and profound.
“In my district, I can just knock on someone’s door and…find someone whose kid or grandkid has a 3.8 GPA who can’t get into the UW, which is one and a half miles from their house,” says Carlyle, who lives on Queen Anne. “The public has really lit up. When I’m out at the farmers’ market, parents buttonhole me about this. They are real parents living real lives and they have a real sense of anxiety.”
“A perfect storm” is one way to describe the current higher education situation in Washington: A higher ed budget slashed nearly in half. A quavering recovery from the recession. Polarized politics, in which even the whisper of a tax increase can bring on the wrath of a chunk of the electorate. “They were taking this step out of sheer, painful desperation,” Carlyle says of the UW’s admittance of more out-of-state students. For those who are accepted, he points out, the school remains very well priced compared to other state higher education systems, and certainly as compared to private schools.
“The UW is one of premier institutions in the world,” says Carlyle, who has four kids; the first will hit college age in five years. “It’s consistently rated one of the best financial deals in the nation. Tuition is less at the UW than it is at an elite private elementary school by a third or even a half,” he says, which is one reason so many locals pin their hopes on going there. But that could be changing, too. In July, the UW’s Board of Regents approved a 20 percent tuition hike for next year.
Eastlake High School counselor and private college consultant Sue Epeneter says the higher education admissions world is undergoing a sea change. In the recent past, she would seldom have encouraged local students to apply to the California public university system, because it was so expensive and hard to crack for out-of-state students, taking only a handful of elites. Better to go for the UW, a bargain with better acceptance rates. But this year, she knows of a high school senior admitted to both the University of California (UC) Davis and UC Santa Barbara—with just a 3.5 GPA.
“She would not have gotten into the UW, that’s for sure,” Epeneter says. “It’s a lot less predictable than it used to be. I’m just stunned this girl has a 3.5 and got in [to California state schools]. I normally would not have urged her to apply. Now I’m going to have to reconsider the University of California system as an option for students.” Seems the UC system, too, is looking for out-of-state tuitions to bolster sagging finances; for a second year, that system has reported a significant increase in out-of-state admittances. Those students pay more than $36,000 a year, nearly triple the tuition of in-state students.
Things are better for students applying to Washington State University (WSU) and Western Washington University, says Epeneter and other college consultants—at least, for now. WSU has actually increased the number of incoming freshmen it accepts, and Western’s standards remain the same. “Usually the next school after the UW that is hardest to get into would be Western,” Epeneter says, “but we didn’t see that big a change there. That’s interesting, too. The next couple of years are going to be a crapshoot.” In the past, the UW has been a safety school for a number of kids, she says. Now it takes a GPA of nearly 3.8 or higher to get in. “Pretty much most of those kids should get in,” Epeneter says—if they took enough rigorous courses in high school.
Joan Franklin, an independent college counselor on Mercer Island, has spent a lot of time urging students and their families to think critically about which school is the best fit. Just because a kid’s mom and dad were Huskies doesn’t mean it’s the right school for their teenager. Does the school have the right subjects? Will student be able to get into a major they love? Is the school competitive enough? Too competitive? Franklin urges families to be realistic about a student’s college plans, and perhaps consider having the student attend a community college for a year or two first.
And if the UW is the goal, students must put all of their energy into doing a superb job on the application, given the tenor of the times, something not all students have always done, Franklin says. “There are students with high grades who, in the past, assumed they were shoe-ins,” Franklin says, “but I think the UW prides itself on an exhaustive application. They expect you to put a lot of thought into it.”
Philip Ballinger isn’t hiding what his day job is when he goes to parties, but he might be increasingly tempted: He’s the UW director of admissions. Soft-spoken and earnest, he insists things really haven’t changed that much. “I think it’s truly overblown,” Ballinger says with a sigh. “There was and has been concern on the part of the Washington state community that it’s impossible to get into the UW. A point of fact is that the majority of applicants are admitted.” The school accepted about 5,650 freshmen for this fall, 70 percent of them in-state applicants. That’s compared to about 73 percent of the applicants in the fall of 2010. It’s just hard for families who don’t have the breadth of knowledge about the applicant pool to understand how students are picked at present, Ballinger says. “What they see, of course, is that someone who they’ve raised, a good student who has done good work and has been involved in activities, isn’t being admitted to the University of Washington, and there is nothing I can say that can make it better. It’s not the end of school for the students by any means. These students will go onto other good schools. I just can’t tell them that their daughter, their son, is, on average, actually below average for an admitted student.”
The average applicant this year had a 3.77 grade point average, says Ballinger, with an SAT test score nearing 1250. “So if a student is a 3.6 student with 1180 on the test, that’s good solid student—but below average for an applicant here.” With fewer spots available for local kids, you can consider the bar raised. “The reduction of 150 state students enrolled got everyone going,” Ballinger says. “The broader issue is that the state cannot pay for higher education. The state has effectively cut half the funding for higher education in less than three years. We have disinvested immensely in it. That’s like eating your seed corn. That’s, in my mind, a famine situation.”
Representative Carlyle agrees, saying that the public needs to understand the tradeoff we make by passing every antitax initiative that comes along and by not demanding that the state fully fund education. “It is simply unrealistic for the public funding of education to be eviscerated, for tuition not to go up, and for the UW to have enough slots for high-quality students,” he says. “We have built one of the premier institutions of learning not just in the nation, but in the world. But if we, as a state, feel it’s OK to eviscerate their funding without a thought to their consequences, we are living in a parallel universe.”