Preparing for College

Newsworthy Numbers

The New York Times' Eric Platt sums it up:

. . . the admissions season for 2010 has shaped up to be one of the most competitive, and uncertain, in memory . . .

And Barmak Nassirian, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers adds the exclamation point:

The percentage of students accepted at many of the nation's top institutions hit new lows, while waiting lists reached new heights.

For those of you who need quantitative proof, check out the Times' The Choice blog, which offers the hard data "from public and private universities across the country."


Platt adds emphasis to the gravity of these numbers with some interesting clarifications.

Mr. Nassirian points to the economic downturn as fueling uncertainty among colleges about how many accepted students would actually attend — the so-called yield. "The underlying method by which families have historically paid for college was basically obliterated by the triple whammy that this recession has delivered,” he says.

As a result, colleges had to hedge their bets this year: some offered a waiting-list spot to more than three times as many students as their entering class, leaving hundreds, even thousands, of students dangling, sometimes into late summer.

“These are very challenging times for admissions directors and enrollment managers,” said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College. “Most use waiting lists as insurance policies to ensure that they achieve their enrollment goals.”

Boston College offered a spot on its list to 6,026 students; 2,686 of those agreed to wait, for a class of 2,250. “Remember that even if offered admission from the waiting list, students do not automatically enroll,” Mr. Mahoney said. “They may have other admission and financial aid offers to consider.”

In what admissions directors call summer melt, students place a deposit to secure a spot in a college’s freshman class but withdraw because of sticker shock or an offer of admission from another college's waiting list.


There's a spirited discussion about these numbers on the College Confidential discussion forum. A few samples:

- My DD's school, RPI has only a 22% yield. Are thee folks turning down RPI doing so for its peers or near peers (Case, CMU, RIT, etc, etc) because they dont like something about RPI - are they folks who got into top 20 schools who applied to RPI as a safety - or are they folks who got into their instate flagship or public tech school, who decided RPI's FA offer wasnt good enough to pick over a state school?

- "Let's say that you invite some people to your party and only half of them show up. Well, you can say that you invite President Obama who turns you down. On the other hand, if President Obama invites people to White House for a party and only half of them show up.... That might be the reason why Harvard and Stanford still care about the yield.... "

our yield for parties depends on what season of the year it is, how far in advance we send out invitations, and whether we skip inviting people we know dont usually want to come. Someone looking at our "party yield" without knowing those things would think our popularity fluctuated much more wildly than it in fact does.

- The commonapp seems to me something that was (is) a good idea in theory, and a horrible idea in execution -- making the cost of applying to an incremental school so much less. I wonder who will be the first to blink and pull back *out* of the commonapp.

- What is absoultely mindblowing is the accuracy with which the Boston U Admissions Committee did its math. Though they accepted an unprecedented 22,143 students, everything worked out perfectly. They got a perfect 19% yield and took 8 off of the waitlist. I have no idea how numbers work so consistently for them.

- Why do consumers care about "yield"? If you are applying, it gives you a rough idea of your chances. Hopefully, you will NOT use the number as a guide to how "good" the college is.

For instance, Case Western (not on the list) has a pretty high yield, as I recall, but it's a very good school with a high-caliber student body. All the yield # means is that a smaller, self-selected group (smart students who don't mind wintering in Cleveland) apply and a good percentage of them are accepted.


And so it goes. In my view, it pays to study numbers like this, if for no other reason, to see just how difficult and complex the realm of high-end college admissions can be. Numbers can be numbing but sometimes numbers are necessary.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.