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Driven by the demand for relatively inexpensive public education, admission standards at Buffalo-area state colleges and universities have increased dramatically in the last few years.

And some educators expect the trend to continue.

Aware of the stiffer standards, many high school graduates who would like to attend a local state school aren't even applying.

Others are enrolling at two-year colleges or out-of-town universities, then transferring to local four-year institutions. Still others attend out-of-state public schools with less demanding standards.

"It's the constituent problem of the '90s: 'How do I get my son or daughter into a state school?' " said Stephen T. Banko III, chief of staff for State Sen. Anthony M. Masiello, D-Buffalo. "In any given year, we'll get 20 calls. People say: 'I've been supporting the state schools for decades with my tax dollars, and now I can't get my kid in.' "

At the University at Buffalo, the median high school grade of the freshman class rose from 88 to 91 between 1984 and 1989. Similarly, the middle Scholastic Achievement Test score increased from 1066 to 1135.

Geneseo State College is rejecting applicants who once would have received scholarships, said Janet M. Graeter, dean of admissions. Between 1985 and 1990, the median high school average jumped from 88.2 to 92.5. In 1985, typical Geneseo freshmen were in the top 19 percent of their high school class. Last year, they were in the top 8 percent.

"There are some very, very good students who would be very successful here who we just don't have room for," Ms. Graeter said.

At Buffalo State College, the median high school average for incoming freshman increased from 82.6 to 84 between 1985 and 1989.

From 1987 to 1989, the median high school grade of Fredonia State College freshmen increased from 84.6 to 86.2, and the middle SAT score went from 989 to 1028.

Those figures also reflect trends taking place in other states, including some in which lawmakers are attempting to legislate minimum admission standards, said Laurie Robinson, assistant executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

College administrators offer several explanations for the rising local standards:

Cost: Tuition and room and board have surpassed $20,000 a year at many private universities. In contrast, a state resident attending UB and staying on campus pays $5,565 a year. Tuition for a commuter student is just $1,350.

The cost helps to make state schools more attractive to students from wealthy families. Robert E. Coon, vice president for student affairs at Fredonia State, said he notices students with more expensive cars and clothing. A growing number of students don't even apply for financial aid, he said.

Quality: As students look more closely at college options, they realize that local state schools offer very good educational opportunities, administrators said. Both Geneseo and Fredonia saw admissions rise after national publications ranked them as among the best educational bargains in the country.

"We've had a great little school here for a long time, but I don't think the word was out," said Ms. Graeter of Geneseo. Now, she said, Geneseo enrolls many students who, in the past, would have gone instead to Colgate University, Skidmore College or St. Lawrence University.

Static enrollment: While the demand for public education has increased, tight budgets have kept enrollments at state campuses steady, or, in some cases, caused them to decline.

At Fredonia, 4,829 applicants vied for 2,820 freshmen opening in 1984. Five years later, there were 1,968 more applicants but only four more openings.

In 1979, Geneseo accepted 88 percent of its freshmen applicants. Now, however, it accepts just over 30 percent.

Administrators at the four state campuses said they try to provide access through special admission programs for educationally disadvantaged students or those with strong abilities in areas like art, music or athletics.

They concede that rising standards still leave many local applicants disappointed. But they said that blow is cushioned by the unusually large number of two-year colleges and private schools in the Buffalo area.

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