B students face tough admissions at Florida universities

3.0 students are getting rejection letters

Suddenly, doing above average work in high school may not be enough to get you into Florida's public universities.

Competition is fierce this year, as top students flood state universities with applications. The state's high school graduation rate has soared from 60 percent to 80 percent in the past decade, putting more students into the college admissions pool. With a poor economy, cheap in-state tuition and the abundance of Bright Futures scholarships, many students are opting to stay in Florida for college.

At the same time, universities face cuts in state funding, giving them fewer resources to educate the lesser prepared students. As a result, B students are getting rejection letters from schools they could have easily gotten into a few years ago, such as Florida Atlantic University and the University of North Florida.

"Absolutely, we are turning down qualified students," said Chad Learch, assistant director of admissions at UNF in Jacksonville, where the average GPA was 3.79. "It kills me that we have to do that, but when we set our freshmen targets, we have to live by those."

The selectivity could lead universities to make coursework more rigorous, gain prestige and produce a stronger pool of available workers. But the lack of access for B students could hurt the state's economic recovery, if more parents send their children — and their money — to schools out of state, said Kelly Smallridge, president of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.

Some universities, including FAU and Florida International University, are increasing the size of their freshman class, but in many cases, not enough to meet demand.

That forces many students with a 3.0 GPA to either start out at a community college and transfer in two years or attend a more expensive private or out-of-state school. In some cases, they'll be accepted to in-state universities if they have strong SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendations, a good essay, leadership or other credentials.

The average GPA for entering freshmen this fall at the University of Central Florida was 3.82, up from 3.62 five years ago. It was 3.9 at Florida State University, 3.81 at the University of South Florida and 3.7 at FIU, which are all strong A averages. At the highly competitive University of Florida, the average GPA this year was 4.3, reflecting the extra weight given for advanced classes.

Andrea Thomas, 18, a senior at Boca Raton High School, worried her 3.2 GPA would be too low to get her into a state university. She used a tutor to help her study for the ACT, and got a 25, a strong score that helped offset her GPA. She's been accepted into several state universities and is waiting to hear from FSU.

"For Florida State, it's all about test scores and GPA. If one student has one point higher than you, it can make a huge difference. You can lose your spot," she said.

FSU received 35,000 applications this year for 6,000 seats, up 7 percent from last year.

"We have a very, very strong applicant pool this year, and this is definitely the best qualified group of applicants we've received, and I've been here 32 years," said John Barnhill, assistant vice president for enrollment management.

FAU is expecting its fall 2011 class to be its most competitive ever. The university has received a record 21,000 applications – twice as many as last year. The school launched an "elite scholars" e-mail marketing campaign this year to lure top students.

FAU officials say they expect the average GPAs and test scores to surge. The fall 2010 freshmen entered with average GPAs of 3.3 and SAT scores of 1083.

UCF in Orlando has been growing while also raising admissions standards. With 56,000 students, it's now the second largest university in the country.

"We plan to continue accommodating much of our enrollment growth on our regional campuses and also to continue offering more online courses for the convenience of our students," UCF spokesman Chad Binette said.

Many universities say they aren't really turning students down, but are instead delaying their entrance. The state's "2 plus 2" system guarantees access to a public university for any student who receives an associate's of arts degree at a community college.

Community colleges have also started to offer four-year degrees, and changed their names to state colleges, to attract students who might get shut out of state universities. Broward College isn't turning any qualified students away from its teacher education bachelor's degree program and has about 300 students in it now, Dean Aline Sarria said.

Some state universities have decided to grow to meet the demand. FIU had been the most selective public university in Florida in recent years, accepting just a third of students, due to

funding and space limitations.

But in December, the Board of Trustees approved a five-year plan to increase enrollment by 2,000 students a year. That will increase the size of the university from 42,000 to 52,000.

"Our president felt we had not been fulfilling our commitment to the South Florida community by not providing sufficient access to all the students who would like to come here and were qualified," FIU provost Douglas Wartzok said.

It's easier for state universities to grow now that they have authority from the Legislature to raise tuition by 15 percent a year, compared to about 5 percent in the past. The extra money helps offset the expenses associated with the new students.

Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers and the University of West Florida in Pensacola also hope to get bigger.

But the options remain limited at many state universities.

"Most adults could not get into the schools they went to," said Helene Kessler, a college and career adviser at Boca Raton High School. "It's become that difficult."

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