Brittanie Martinez was stunned this spring when she found out that San Diego State University had rejected her. The school guarantees spots to community college students like Martinez if they take the right classes and get the right grades. Martinez had done all those things at Grossmont College.

Something had gone wrong, Martinez was convinced, and it wasn’t her fault. A meticulous planner who dreams of managing a hotel, she had carefully checked over her application. As she pored over it again, she discovered that a crucial class hadn’t shown up on her computerized application.

So Martinez decided not to take no for an answer. She argued her case in a letter. She had a printed version of her application to prove she’d included the class. And San Diego State changed its mind and let her in.

Martinez is one of nearly 500 students who have argued back after getting a rejection letter from San Diego State this year — and more are appealing for admission every day. It is a rare step for rejected students and only a fraction succeed. But as San Diego students face a steeper battle to get into the college, counselors and community groups are urging students to try their luck. Some argue that they were wronged by computer glitches or simple confusion on their application. Others plead hardships.

The stakes grew higher this year after the local university stiffened its admissions rules, fearful that it might enroll too many students and overrun its budget. It stopped guaranteeing places for local students who met the college bar. And it tightened the rules for transfer students like Martinez to get a guaranteed spot at San Diego State, requiring them to take more classes for their chosen major.

Some community colleges are actively prodding transfer students to explore whether to appeal. San Diego City College, for instance, informed all denied students that they had the right to submit an appeal and urged them to find out why they were denied. Other colleges host workshops on how to do it.

Ten anxious students sat inside the Southwestern student center on a sunny Wednesday, listening grimly to a workshop on how to appeal at San Diego State and where else they could go. Jaime Salazar, who coordinates the transfer center, told them they needed to act fast.

“We’ve kicked it up a notch,” said Angelica Suarez, vice president of student affairs at Southwestern College. “If there is a reason, they should absolutely appeal.”

Roughly one-third of students who made their case in 2007 or 2008 were successful. Those numbers jumped last year, when nearly half of appealing students got in because of persistent problems with a new, computerized application for transfer students. The university tries to dampen hopes that students can argue their way in. Its website states, “SDSU accepts appeals for extreme circumstances only.”

“I don’t want to give students false hope that we’re just going to change our minds,” said assistant vice president of academic affairs Sandra Cook. “We really don’t want to tell 42,000 denied freshmen, ‘You have a right to appeal this.’”

So far, fewer students have appealed this year than last year, but college and high school counselors say that they’re still sending appeals. Nearly 1,400 students sought a second chance last year for fall admission.

Community activists complain that students get too little information about why they were turned down and how they can fight it. They argue that San Diego State should air more information about appeals on its website and automatically tell students why they were rejected. Transfer students sometimes have to deduce why the university didn’t let them in or seek help from a counselor to figure it out.

“Was it because they simply failed to check a box?” asked Rev. Gerald Brown, human resources director for the United African American Ministerial Action Council, which is pushing the university to make the appeals process clearer. “They’re clueless.”

Seventy-five percent of undergraduate applicants were turned down by San Diego State this fall — more than 46,000 students — compared to half of students three years ago. That includes 1,740 local freshmen who once would have been guaranteed a spot at the school. San Diego State has also been stricter about repealing offers of admission for high schoolers who later flunk classes.

“You step out of line for a minute and you’re out,” said Dawn Cuizon, a counselor at Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley. One of her students is an orphan who got a D her senior year while bouncing between homes. She repeated the class and got an A, but San Diego State revoked her admission anyway.

“It’s not senioritis,” said Cuizon, who is helping the teen appeal. “She didn’t have a place to live.”

Students send letters to a committee made up of the assistant vice president of academic affairs, the admissions director and the advising director. Simple pleas like “It’s my dream to go to San Diego State” don’t move them. Extraordinary stories might. But if the university made an error — or if the student can muster new information about their academic record — the committee could be convinced.

Some rejected students got in last year because of unclear wording on an added application for transfer students.

Crystal Sudano, a single mother who sought to transfer from Grossmont College, didn’t check off one box on her application for a required science lab that lasted two hours per week — because she was taking a three hour lab that met the same requirement.

When she found out what happened, Sudano waited in a university office for hours, insisting that someone talk to her. She lucked out: San Diego State accepted her and other students with the same problem. But she fears that others simply get discouraged or don’t know how to appeal.

“I’m probably a little more savvy than the average student,” said Sudano, who was active in student government at Grossmont and now at SDSU. “They’re not reaching out to students.”

Community college counselors say the extra transfer application has far fewer problems this year. But technical problems are still cropping up. For instance, a student might enter the same class in more than one part of their application because it meets multiple requirements. But if they later decide to delete it from one section, the computer automatically eliminates it from the other parts without telling them.

San Diego State is one of the few schools that require the extra application for transfer students.

“It’s like a hurdle so they don’t have to take as many students,” said Maria Senour, a San Diego Community College District trustee.”The most vulnerable ones get screened out.”

And even if a student can prove that they should have been admitted, there may not be space left for them. Cook said she tries her best to find spots, but it’s simply impossible to ensure that they’ll get in.

One of those nervous students is Eladio Carrillo, a Cuyamaca College student who wants to transfer to San Diego State. He believes he met all the requirements, but was denied a spot this year because the computer system erroneously wiped two classes off of his application. He’s waiting to hear of his fate.

If his petition falls flat, Carrillo said, “I’d just have to wait it out until next year.”

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