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Facing one of the biggest decisions in a teenager's life, Jocelin Padilla is at a loss.

A Healdsburg High School senior with a 4.0 academic average, Padilla, 17, is sorting her options for a college education.

She applied to 11 schools, was accepted by six, put on a waitlist by two, and was denied by three, including UC Berkeley.

"I really don't know where I want to go," she said. "It's stressful."

Many of the more than 5,500 graduating seniors in Sonoma County share Padilla's anxiety, facing the annual spring thumbs-up, thumbs-down verdict by school admissions officials scattered around the state and nation.

Compounding their dilemma this year is a record flood of about 600,000 applications to the nine-campus University of California and 23-school California State University systems, both battered by state budget cuts.

Also clouding the annual college rush is a double whammy of rising tuition costs and a persistent economic slump, eroding the affordability of higher education.

"The kids are still achieving," said Sharon Howell, head counselor at Casa Grande High in Petaluma. But the home equity used in the past to finance college has evaporated for many families, she said.

"That's the new reality," Howell said, noting that family job losses are also deterring "college-ready" students from enrolling in four-year schools.

The UC system, which received 126,299 freshman applications for fall admission — a record for the eighth straight year and a 19 percent increase over last year — has the capacity but not the funding to enroll more California students.

"There will be more disappointment among applicants and their families because we simply don't have the funding to increase enrollment," UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said.

CSU's 472,000 freshman applications also are a record, topping 426,000 for the fall of 2011, of which 219,000 were accepted.

'More difficult' to meet demand

"The demand is still there; it's just getting more difficult to serve them," spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said.

Sonoma State University received 13,112 freshman applications for fall 2012, nearly 1,000 more than last year, said Gustavo Flores, director of enrollment management.

The Rohnert Park school intends to enroll 1,800 freshmen, about the same as in the fall of 2011 and 226 more than in 2010.

As a result of the application avalanche, the UC system is now wait-listing more students than ever before, postponing a final admissions decision until June 1.

"It is frustrating," said Ever Flores, head counselor at Healdsburg High, who encourages seniors to apply to UC and CSU as well as out-of-state schools.

He's seen students who once would have been "a shoo-in" for admission by UCs like Davis, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz wind up on waitlists this spring.

Padilla was wait-listed by UC Davis, and accepted at UC Santa Cruz and UC Irvine, as well as Sonoma, Sacramento and Chico state universities. She was rejected by the University of Pennsylvania, Scripps College in Southern California and Berkeley.

Berkeley, UCLA most elusive

Berkeley and UCLA are the toughest UC schools to get into, each admitting about 25 percent of applicants.

Admission rates at other UC schools range from 78 percent at Merced, the highest, to 68 percent at Santa Cruz, about 46 percent at Santa Barbara, Davis and Irvine, and 34 percent at San Diego.

Padilla was also wait-listed by St. Mary's College, a private school in Moraga that was initially her first choice. "That was kind of upsetting," she said. "Still, I have hope that I'll get in there."

For now, Padilla, who wants to major in engineering or business administration, is weighing the acceptances from Sacramento State and Mills College, a private school for women in Oakland. She's also applying for scholarships and considering student loans as she struggles with how to pay tuition and all the other college costs.

Ayda Uraz, a senior at Maria Carrillo High, said her anxiety is easing with acceptance notices from four of the eight schools on her list, including UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State and two out-of-state schools.

Uraz, a Santa Rosa resident who posted a 4.4 grade-point average, still hopes for admission to the University of Concordia in Montreal, where she could polish her French language skills.

"It would be something different from California," she said.

Uraz, 18, said she's relieved that a four-year campaign for grades and extracurricular accomplishments to pad a college application is coming to an end.

"I felt I was pushing myself too hard," Uraz said, which caused her sporadic "panic attacks."

Many friends, she said, are overachievers whose studies and other efforts left them little personal time. "Everything they did was college-oriented," Uraz said.

Admittance news early

Sidonie Devarenne, one of 60 seniors at Sonoma Academy, was insulated from the spring college frenzy, thanks to an early admission to Brown University in December.

"I cried when I found out, I was so happy," said Devarenne, 18, a Petaluma resident who attends the college-preparatory private school in Santa Rosa.

She was not alone, as 28 other seniors had been accepted by at least one college before the winter break, said David Rion, Sonoma Academy's director of college counseling.

The 60 seniors submitted about 500 college applications, he said, including both "safety schools" they were confident of getting into and "reach schools," such as Stanford University, that were more iffy.

Devarenne, a straight-A student with seven advanced classes on her transcript, said it was "great to finish my senior year with a positive feeling."

Padilla said she's allowing herself a case of "senioritis," an academic letting-go near the close of a high school career. Her teachers, accustomed to the spring infection, are "cool with it," she said.

But the lingering economic slump has sapped some of the elation from the season of proms and graduation parties, said Howell, who's been counseling at Casa Grande since 2001.

"I think it's a time of apprehension," she said, sensing the seniors' worries over the future. "They're delighted to be graduating, but they're scared to death. They never admit they're scared to death."

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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