Students with less-than-stellar high-school GPAs can draw hope from Jonathan Rue. After pulling just a middling 3. 2 average at his Juneau...

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Students with less-than-stellar high-school GPAs can draw hope from Jonathan Rue. After pulling just a middling 3.2 average at his Juneau, Alaska, high school, Rue is now a thriving senior at highly regarded Whitman College in Walla Walla.

Or there’s Kandi Bauman of Vancouver, Wash. With her high-school schedule packed with extracurricular volunteer work, Bauman graduated with a B-plus, 3.6 GPA. Her high-school track record was good enough to get her into The Evergreen State College in Olympia, where she graduated last summer with combined bachelor’s degrees in arts and environmental science.

It may not be Harvard. But there’s reassuring news for B students: Earning a degree at a high-quality, four-year school is not out of reach.

Better education than Ivies

In fact, many high-school underachievers end up at small liberal-arts colleges that some observers say offer a better-quality education than students get in the Ivy League. Here, classes are much smaller, and students get individual attention they often can’t find at a large university.

That’s the opinion of admissions expert Loren Pope, author of “Colleges That Change Lives” (Penguin, rev. ed. 2006). In the book, Pope highlights 40 less-known small colleges nationwide that he says offer top-quality education to their students. In this region, Whitman, Evergreen, and Portland’s Reed College are included.

These colleges may not have the brand-name cachet of the top large research universities, but Pope’s research shows they are turning out top-caliber leaders. They’re also great options for B students to consider, as most small colleges aren’t super-choosy about whom they admit.

More than grades count

Last year, Harvard and Yale admitted around 9 percent of applicants, and many A students were turned away. At Whitman, B students make up around 15 percent of the student body in a typical year. Whitman admissions dean Tony Cabasco says most four-year colleges admit more than 70 percent of applicants.

“You’re going to get in someplace,” he says, “even if you’re a B student.”

Evergreen admissions dean Doug Scrima says he looks beyond grades at a student’s accomplishments. He particularly recalls a Russian-émigré student who had only a 2.9 GPA but had taken tons of AP courses — all in English. She was admitted.

He says, “Evergreen looks for students who have taken a rigorous courseload.”

Smaller colleges often offer students more hands-on learning opportunities than large universities, Pope says. At Evergreen, for instance, Bauman’s education included a stint with the state Department of Transportation, learning about wetlands mitigation techniques. She’s expecting that hands-on work experience to help when she applies to grad school.

Community-college option

Of course, many students with low high-school GPAs take the tried-and-true route to a four-year degree — enroll in community college and work toward a transfer.

That’s the option selected by Ian Stroud of Kenmore. He earned a 2.9 GPA in high school, partly because he was working full time as well.

“I wasn’t really into school,” he says.

He was steered to Bellevue Community College (BCC), where he’s now a freshman, by relatives who had attended previously. He says he also wants to keep college costs down by doing his first two years at community college.

Stroud is hoping to use his time at BCC to raise his GPA, then apply to the University of Washington. He plans to study criminal justice and says a BCC counselor helped him pick out courses that would build his science knowledge. For Stroud, BCC is a chance to ease into the world of college-level academics before hitting a big campus like the UW.

BCC student-services dean Tom Pritchard says community college can often be a place for students who didn’t excel in high school to thrive, as they begin to follow their own interests.

“Higher education affords students an opportunity to explore what they don’t know,” he says. “They can look at themselves, and look to the future.”

For students who aren’t academic stars, there’s also support available at both community and four-year colleges to help keep them on track. At Whitman, for instance, student academic advisers live in the residence halls with freshmen, to be nearby when advice is needed.

Whitman’s success rate is impressive — 88 percent of students who start at Whitman earn their degree there.

Says admissions dean Cabasco: “There are very few people falling through the cracks.”