Waitlisted for college? Here's why

Workers staff the front desk of the University of Michigan's Undergraduate Admissions office on January 17, 2003 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

College admissions rates across the country hit some all-time lows this year. Stanford University, for instance, took only around five percent of applicants. In response to the crazy numbers game of college admissions, schools are growing their wait lists and using them in some surprising ways.

You may think a wait list is for applicants who aren't quite as good as those admitted outright. But it's not that simple. Chris Munoz, the vice president for enrollment at Rice University, says the differences between candidates accepted and those on the wait list "are so subtle and so nuanced." It is less about who is "better" or "worse," and more about the college making sure it can get the exact student body it wants.

Schools stock wait lists with all kinds of applicants -- A-plus students, athletes, candidates who can pay full tuition. Munoz says wait-listing students is like choosing back-ups for a sports team. You want one for every position."Sometimes you need quarterbacks," he says, "and sometimes you need tight ends. So it's luck."

In the end, the wait list comes down to "yield." This is the percentage of students who will accept the college's acceptance. Schools use wait lists to manage the uncertainty of who will actually say yes when admitted. The yield percentage isn't just important for hitting enrollment targets, it has big financial implications.

Over the years, yield numbers have come to affect a school's ranking and bond rating. Low yields will pull down the rank and make it harder to secure financing. To keep yield high, colleges want as many of the students they initially admit to come.

For the most elite colleges, this is less of a problem. Few applicants are going to turn down an Ivy League college or top liberal arts school. But for other institutions it's not so easy. Some schools try to predict which applicants will actually say yes by factoring in a student's "demonstrated interest." This includes things like campus visits and alumni interviews. Other schools, however, are suspected of playing the numbers game a bit more aggressively.

There are rumors that some colleges actually wait-list applicants who seem too good to be true. Admissions offices realize certain top-notch candidates have a high chance of getting in somewhere higher up the rankings food chain. By putting them on the wait list, the admissions office can see if the applicant gets rejected by other schools and comes back begging to be accepted. This way, colleges can catch some prized applicants without risking their yield numbers. Basically, a school doesn't want to be used as safety and then ditched for a first choice.

Admissions consultant Annie Roskin thinks some of her clients may have been wait-listed in this way.

"The thing is you don't know what a wait list means," she says, "kids don't know." Maybe too many quarterbacks applied that year. Did they show enough demonstrated interest? Perhaps their applications just weren't strong enough. Or, the school wanted to soften the blow of rejection and gave them "courtesy wait lists"—a tactic sometimes used for students related to wealthy donors or who have alumni relatives. Who knows?

Katy Murphy is the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. She says the wait list "is purgatory for a kid, basically."

Increased use of the wait lists are part of the vicious admissions cycle. Acceptance rates are falling. That panics kids into applying to more and more schools, which drives acceptance rates further down. All of this lowers yield numbers and encourages colleges to use the wait list. "It's our own admissions march madness vortex," Murphy says.

School rankings fuel all this madness. Murphy says it's part of the increasing commodification of higher education—this idea that college is a product that will predictably deliver things like great jobs and happiness. The rankings establish a brand. They suggest some kind of quantification—the better the number, the higher the return on investment.

Murphy says the reduction of schools to numbers drives ambitious applicants to pursue a small group of elite colleges, not because they are the best fits, but because they are the most effectively branded. She says, "I think everybody would be better off if they didn't believe that there were only thirty colleges that were good colleges."

If that doesn't change, expect more kids to be stuck in admissions limbo on the wait list.

About the author

Sam Harnett is a reporter and contributor to Marketplace.

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