Many Massachusetts colleges that had long accepted students unlikely to make the cut for an Ivy League school are sending record numbers of rejection letters this year.
The Bay State schools are becoming more selective because their applicant pools, like those at the elite colleges, are swelling from a population boom of high school students. And the caliber of the applicants for schools like Boston College, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is rising as Ivy League schools become ever more competitive.
BC accepted only 27 percent of its 28,800 applicants this year, compared with 39 percent a decade ago, when roughly 12,000 fewer students applied.
UMass-Amherst accepted 62 percent of 28,000 applicants this year, compared with 73 percent of 18,000 applicants 10 years ago.
And Northeastern said yes to only 39 percent of its 30,000 applicants, compared with 85 percent 12 years ago.
Not only are more students graduating from high school, a greater percentage are applying to college. And, worried about being turned down, students are applying to more schools, further intensifying the competition.
"It's brutal," said Mark Murray, 17, a junior at Shrewsbury High School, as he stood among thousands of students at a college fair this week in Boston. "It's like you can't do enough to get into a good school."
At UMass-Amherst, the average grade point average of the admitted students this year is 3.6, compared with 3.1 a decade ago. Amherst, the flagship campus of the UMass system, is trying to bolster its national reputation to compete against other big state universities, such as Michigan and Texas.
"We are in the position … of making really tough decisions, either denying or wait-listing kids that three years ago we would have welcomed into the system," said Kevin Kelly, director of admissions at UMass. "As the appeal and reputation of UMass has spread, we've been able to attract more qualified kids and enroll the very best kids we can."
At Boston College, the SAT scores of freshmen have climbed an average 20 to 30 points during the past decade, with students now scoring into the 700s on math and the verbal sections. An 800 is a perfect score on each section. BC is rejecting many students who achieve scores in the 700s. It has kept its freshman enrollment at about 2,200 through the decade.
"Being able to admit less than three out of 10 people is very challenging for our staff," said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at BC. "We are turning down great students. We are perceived in a very negative light. We are the ones who deny students their dreams. When we send out rejection letters, we do so with a lot of misgiving."
Donnie Goodwin, 18, of Revere, a senior at Malden Catholic High School, received a rejection letter from BC a few weeks ago — dashing his hopes to graduate from the same school some of his relatives attended.
"It was the biggest blow in my life," said Goodwin, a National Honor Society member with a 3.7 grade point average. "I was really depressed."
Goodwin, however, acknowledges that his SAT scores, which he declined to disclose, may not have been high enough. He is headed to Providence College.
Just how selective some of the state's schools have become has shocked some guidance counselors, even though they had anticipated that the environment would become more intense with high school enrollments rising nationwide. The number of graduating high school seniors in Massachusetts is expected to peak next year at 68,300, roughly 20,000 more than in the mid-1990s, when the boom began.
"We are seeing a trend that schools once considered 'safety' schools are no longer safety schools, particularly UMass-Amherst," said Stephen Hitzrot, chairman of the counseling department at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, where 96 percent of students go on to college.
Counselors are advising students to apply to more schools — about eight or 10, compared with the goal of four or five a decade ago — and to visit schools as early as April vacation of their junior year so they have time to see them all. In some cases, guidance counselors are suggesting colleges overseas, or they're showing how other schools with less prestige have improved.
"Sometimes there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason why one school is more selective than another," said Theresa Urist, director of college counseling at Prospect Hill Academy, a charter school in Cambridge.
There should be a school for everyone, counselors say. Despite the increase in rejection letters, several hundred colleges nationwide have empty seats, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a professional organization.
Because of the growing competition, a few years ago the New England Board of Higher Education began publishing a list of colleges with vacancies, to help students rejected by all of their original choices.
Relief from the population boom of high school students is not expected anytime soon. The number of graduating high school seniors nationwide will peak at 3.3 million in 2011, but demographers predict that the size of graduating classes after that will decrease only slightly.
State policy makers in Massachusetts and other states are examining whether there will be enough seats for everyone in the future. The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education is studying capacity at its 29 public campuses with an eye toward expansion.
Seizing an opportunity, some new private colleges are opening. At the college fair at the Bayside Exposition Center in Boston this week, Founders College of Virginia, which will hold its first classes this fall, was trying to attract students with promises of textbooks delivered to students' doors and dorm rooms with their own bathrooms.