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Mary Hale, 22, poses in her animation studio at her home in Pacifica, Calif., on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. Hale, who recently graduated from Canada College, has studied animation for years and has a 3.8 GPA, was denied admission to San Jose State's animation/illustration program. The university set GPA bar for transfer students at 3.85 for that major. (John Green/Bay Area News Group)

Years of hard work earned Mary Hale an associate degree in 3-D animation and video game art, a 3.8 GPA and a magna cum laude distinction. But it didn't get her the one thing she was counting on for her future: a coveted spot in San Jose State's highly regarded animation program.

Once the ticket for aspiring animators of modest means to enter the region's thriving entertainment industry, San Jose State has tightened admission to its animation-illustration program under the pressure of high demand and reduced funding.

Only 12 percent of community college transfer applicants made the cut, as Hale and others learned at a spring orientation.

"They took us into a room and they told us the bad news," said Hale, a graduate of Canada College in Redwood City. "It was very discouraging."

This year, the Silicon Valley university and four other California State University campuses had more applicants than spaces in every major, from philosophy to computer science. The same was true in more than 200 majors across the Cal State system -- twice as many as four years ago.

But for a generation raised on games and animated films, San Jose State's animation-illustration program has become one of the hardest to break into. It admitted only 38 percent of the animation applicants this year, including transfers and incoming freshmen. The program has about 550 students, with a target of 60 new enrollees next fall.

Hale and other transfer students needed a near-perfect 3.85 grade-point average to get in -- the toughest requirement of any major at the university. Based on the number of students it decided to admit, the university raised the standard this spring, months after students applied.

"It's strange, and it's just disappointing because we designed this program to do something great for our California students and the entertainment industry, and it's in chaos, and students can't get in," said Alice Carter, an SJSU art professor who started the animation program nearly 20 years ago.

Attracting artists from throughout the state, the program focuses on training for jobs in film, television, gaming, and Internet-based entertainment in one of four disciplines: 2-D and 3-D animation, concept art, 3-D modeling, and storyboarding. Students specializing in animation learn what it takes to make the next big Pixar film or Nintendo video game, while others focus on "concept art," 3-D models or story development.

Studios think of the San Jose State program as "that really amazing vinyl record shop that nobody knows about, but suddenly everyone knows about," said Jeff Sangalli, who graduated from the program in 2000 and is now the art director for Sony Computer Entertainment America in San Mateo.

Impressed by the program's work, Isabel Allende commissioned the students to produce trailers for her new book, Maya's Notebook, about a teenager who falls into a violent underworld after her parents abandon her.

At $7,300 a year, the San Jose State program is a steal compared with other top schools in the field. San Francisco's Academy of Art University costs nearly $19,000 per year. Tuition and fees at the Rhode Island School of Design total $41,000.

San Jose State is one of the few public university programs anywhere in the nation to consistently produce top talent; it frequently lands on the top-20 lists of feature film recruiters, said Debra Blanchard, a recruiting director for Blue Sky Studios.

"Their kids are competing against other kids who go to very specialized, expensive art schools, and they're doing just as good, if not better," Blanchard said.

Students have picked up on the program's connections. "The word has gotten out that this is the program you want to go to if you want to get a job," said Paul Naas, one of Hale's professors at Canada College.

Carter, who says the program has room for many more students than the university is letting in, said she is heartbroken for the students who were turned away -- especially those who fell short of the newly raised GPA level, which she considers an irrelevant standard for evaluating artists. She said faculty considered a T-shirt protest: "Not smart enough to be an animator? Try physics! Try engineering! Try chemistry!"

One observer saw schools needing to be more responsive to students' career goals as the state begins to restore higher education funding. "If the campuses can't fill that unmet need and can't fill the pipeline for the jobs of the future and the jobs of today, the economy is going to sink," said Audrey Dow of the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Hale dreams of someday working in a major studio. She applied to San Jose State knowing that a degree from its program would advance her career. With that option closed, she is left with an inferior alternative: an expensive, unaccredited online animation program.

"I keep telling myself," she said, "it's not that I'm a bad student or a bad animator -- that it's bad politics."

Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.