Admissions

A Closer Look at College Yields

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We’ve discussed the term “yield” here in the past, but today we'll take a closer look at what that means, both for applicants and the colleges themselves.

Recapping quickly, for the benefit for those who may have missed our previous discussion about yield, it’s a straightforward calculation. To determine a college’s yield, all you have to do is divide the number of enrollments by the number of students accepted. For example, if a college sent out 1,000 acceptances and got 500 enrollments, the yield that year would be 50%.


It’s a dicey proposition for colleges to estimate how many acceptances to issue each year because, obviously, they never know who will choose to enroll. This is especially tricky for colleges that are known colloquially as so-called “Ivy fallbacks” or “Little Ivies.” The Little Ivies are Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut College, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Union, Wesleyan and Williams.

At those schools, a large number of applicants also apply to the “real” Ivy League schools. Those students, if accepted to a genuine Ivy, are highly likely to enroll there. This makes it difficult for schools like this to decide how many applicants to admit every year. Sometimes, when estimates are miscalculated, over-enrollment can happen, and this leads to overcrowding of the college’s dorms and other facilities and resources.

Over-Enrollment Does Occur

Two examples of over-enrollment that come to my mind involve Princeton University and Penn State University. Years ago, Princeton had an unexpectedly high number of enrollments and had to house some first-year students in “modular” housing, installed on an athletic field. More than one Princetonian laughingly said that s/he was living in “the trailer court.” This situation has been corrected, in part, by the construction of an entirely new residential college at Princeton. Must be nice to have that kind of money.

At Penn State, things weren’t quite as deluxe. One particular year, when enrollments far exceeded expectations, freshmen were living (and sleeping) behind privacy curtains erected in the busy student center. Had I been a parent paying the high cost of this public university’s education, I would have been marching with a protest sign in front of Old Main and talking to CNN reporters on camera to complain about the living accommodations. But that’s just me.

Anyway, the enrollment estimating game is far from an exact science and those deans of admission who can make fairly accurate year-to-year guesses as to how many admits will enroll usually can enjoy a secure tenure at the helm, all other things considered. I have to wonder how many of these admission leaders use the old Magic 8-Ball for guidance.

Crunching the Numbers

Now, let’s take a look at some actual yield numbers. I saw an article the other day (May 16) that surprised me. Of course, over the years, the Ivy League and a handful of other so-called “elite” colleges have led the way for impressive yields. But this article about Harvard University was surprising: 82 Percent of Admits Plan to Join Class of 2022:

Around 82 percent of students admitted to the Class of 2022 have accepted their offers of admission so far, though more students will be admitted from the waitlist in the coming months.

This year’s yield rate represents a slight decrease from last year’s rate. A record-high 84 percent of students had accepted their offers to the Class of 2021 around this time a year ago. The final yield rate for the Class of 2021 — that is, the percentage of admitted students that actually joined the class— was 82.8 percent.

In total, 42,749 prospective students applied to the Class of 2022, and the College accepted 4.59 percent of those students — 1,962 in total — during the early admission and regular decision rounds....

What’s doubly surprising about this news is the fact that Harvard’s 82 percent yield is a “slight decrease” (two percent) from the previous year’s rate. Yield rates in the 80 percent range are the envy of admission deans everywhere. Of course, we all know where Harvard stands in the eyes of many aspiring college students. They apply, and, if admitted, most enroll, as those 84-82 percent numbers attest.

A high yield rate has consequences for applicants who have been wait-listed. As the article notes:

A number of wait-listed students are slated to receive formal notifications of admission Wednesday, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. This marks a departure from last year, when the record-high yield resulted in no students being admitted from the waitlist. The Class of 2021’s unusual size prompted the College to assign 28 freshmen to overflow housing in DeWolfe apartments....

There are two issues at work here. First, high yields, such as Harvard’s 84 percent last year, can mean that no wait-listed applicants will be admitted. Second, as I noted above with Princeton and Penn State, over-enrollment can lead to unorthodox housing arrangements. However, I’m confident that those Harvard first-years who were sent to the DeWolfe apartments weren’t sleeping out in the open, separated by a mere curtain.

Why Yields Matter

To further examine yield rates, let’s look at some other numbers. The IvyWise blog has some good information about yields. For example, if you need more background on why yields matter …

There’s a lot that goes into building a class. Every college and university has its own set of institutional needs, and those are examined along with the applicant pool in order to build a well-rounded class. Yield is important because it sets the tone for the next academic year and the next admissions season, because everything, from class size to program funding and more factors in yield. 

Increasingly, colleges are finding it harder and harder to predict yield, because students are applying to more colleges than ever before. Colleges want to admit students who want to attend, so in order to better predict yield colleges take into consideration demonstrated interest and other factors like applying early decision or early action to determine how likely a student is to enroll if admitted. This is important information for students just starting the college admission process, as it helps them understand what colleges are looking for and how they can use that to their advantage.

This leads to an insight about showing interest in the colleges to which you apply. If you’re thinking about maxing out your Common Application with a “shotgun” approach to your college applications, listen up.

As IvyWise noted in its comments, colleges are looking for applicants who will attend. Expressing interest in a college is important and can take several forms. First, visiting is a must. We’ve discussed “trodding the sod” any number of times here. Second, where interviews are offered, either through alumni or on campus, an applicant should definitely follow through with a sit-down, face-to-face discussion about their interest in attending the college to which they have applied. Third, and this can be critical at some colleges, contact with an admission representative (the “regional” rep) can pay dividends, too.

I have seen one particular school that displays its disdain for “shotgun” applicants. Those would be the seniors who apply only through the Common App and have virtually no other contact with the school. At least in my experience, the one school that looks down on shotgunners most clearly is Washington University in St. Louis.

Over my many years of counseling college applicants, I’ve worked with numerous seniors who applied to WUSTL. The amazing thing I’ve noted about all their application processes is that those who followed my advice to visit, interview and ask intelligent questions of admission reps were admitted. Those who ignored my advice were either denied or wait-listed. Of those who were denied or wait-listed at WUSTL, a good number of those were admitted to the Ivies and other elites, but not to WUSTL, even though they were completely qualified to be admitted. Thus, showing a little love can go a long way.

First Step: Get Accepted

I hope you can see, then, that if you care to become part of a college’s yield, obviously, you first have to be accepted. That’s where portraying your passion to attend can pay off, assuming that you are, in fact, qualified.

If you would like to get a fairly comprehensive review of college yields (from two years ago), check out this U.S. News summary. There are a few surprises. For example, did you know that there are some institutions of higher learning that can out-yield Harvard? These are as follows:

- United States Military Academy, New York (West Point): 87.9 percent

- United States Naval Academy, Maryland (Annapolis): 86.9 percent

- Stanford University: 82.1 percent

The question that logically follows the above discussion is: What if a college’s yield falls short of target? Good question. I proposed one answer in an Admit This! post I made last week:

There is an amazingly large group of colleges throughout the United States that are still looking for first-year students to grace their dorm rooms.

In addition to these schools that are still entertaining applicants, there is also that favorite admissions department fallback loathed by applicants: The waitlist. However, the waitlist is not always the saving grace for colleges, since many applicants, once they receive their wait-listing notification(s), immediately start looking for other enrollment options, especially in light of a fast-approaching May 1 enrollment deadline at most schools.

Again, the college yield game is a hairy one, even for the top players. Plus, if I may editorialize, the colleges always play with a stacked deck, and despite their noble proclamations about the inclusiveness of their admissions mission, so to speak, there is one ongoing core goal: Maximize tuition dollars. Higher education is a business, regardless of how magnanimously marketing materials portray it.

This closer look should alert you to some schools that attract the most applicants. It should also point you toward some schools that are still ready to accept your application, even though it’s well past the middle of May.

I encourage you to pay particular attention to my advice about showing your enthusiasm for the schools to which you will be applying this fall. The relatively short amount of time needed to display your fervor to attend can provide happy outcomes. Maybe I should have said, “... could very well yield success ...” but I won’t.