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‘Fair Practices’ in Admissions

Some people call them crucial enrollment-management tools for these uncertain times. Others call them big, bloated symbols of institutional priorities gone wild. Either way, more colleges are using them: wait lists.

According to the 2011 “State of College Admission” report released today by National Association for College Admission Counseling, 48 percent of institutions surveyed used a wait list for fall 2010, up from 39 percent the previous year. Forty-two percent of colleges reported that they placed more applicants on wait lists last year than they did in 2009.

On average, the survey found, colleges offered to put 10 percent of their applicants in the admissions version of suspended animation in 2010, and about half of those applicants decided to stay there. In the end, colleges admitted 28 percent of wait-listed students, on average, down from 34 percent in 2009. Not surprisingly, the most selective colleges plucked relatively few applicants out of limbo, admitting just 11 percent of them, on average.

“Colleges are leaning more heavily, and perhaps more ‘craftily,’ on the wait lists, which may be tipping the balance in ways that students and counselors are finding objectionable,” David A. Hawkins, the association’s director of public policy and research, said in an e-mail.

Indeed, counselors often wonder why some colleges’ wait lists are so long. Others have questioned why some selective institutions maintain their wait lists well into the summer, prolonging the “emotional strain” on students. Concerns about this issue recently convinced the association’s Admissions Practices Committee to study how colleges use wait lists—and how wait lists may relate to questions about “timing, transparency, and financial considerations” in the admissions process. (The committee plans to report back to the association next year.)

The new report also provides further evidence that this era of application inflation is going strong. For fall 2010, 75 percent of applicants submitted three or more applications, and 25 percent submitted seven or more. Over the last decade, about three-quarters of college have reported application increases each year.

The flood of applications has complicated colleges’ ability to predict yield (the percentage of accepted students who enroll). The average institutional yield rate for four-year colleges has declined steadily, from 49 percent in 2001 to 41 percent last year.

Those numbers suggest the irony of this high-volume era. “Colleges, despite the embarrassment of riches in the number of applications,” Mr. Hawkins says, “continue to find it more difficult to determine who’s actually attending.”

To hedge against that uncertainty, colleges continue to experiment with a variety of enrollment strategies. Many are making greater use of early-action admissions policies, for instance. Seventy-two percent of colleges with such programs reported increases in early-action applicants, the survey found; 68 percent of such institutions reported increases in the number of early-action admission offers.

By contrast, only 38 percent of colleges with binding early-decision programs reported increases in early applicants; in recent years, about half of colleges have seen increases. And 36 percent reported increases in early-decision admissions offers. On average, the gap between acceptance rates for regular and early-decision applicants, which had grown in recent years, has narrowed to seven percentage points, the survey found.

In a land where Ivy League obsessions are often fashionable, it’s easy to forget that four-year institutions accept, on average, 65.5 percent of all applicants. That’s a cheerful thought, everyone.

Another thought from the association’s report was not so cheerful. Prolonged economic decline and uncertainty, it says, could make it more difficult for students and admissions professionals alike “to adhere to fair practices.”

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