Published: Mar 23, 2017 1:19 p.m. ET

The high school senior qualified to audition for all-state choir, but he’d also been invited to interview for the prestigious Jefferson Scholarship, which promised a full ride to the University of Virginia worth $125,000. He couldn’t be in both places at the same time.

“Unfortunately,” warned the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, “the flexibility will have to come from the choral organization, or you will have to choose between the two.”

The Virginia Choral Directors Association was just as uncompromising. It cautioned that only an illness “severe enough that continued participation would be harmful to the student’s health” would excuse the 17-year-old choir president from a full day’s attendance.

The annual mating dance between high school seniors and the nation’s colleges and universities is under way, and it’s not pretty. Class of 2020 decision letters will go out at month’s end, even as tuition and fees rise faster than inflation, producing about $107 billion in education debt last year, according to the College Board.