As college applications swell, so do wait lists

A banner outside the Johns Hopkins admissions office welcomes incoming students.

Tess Vigeland: This week marked the deadline for students to decide which college got the thumbs-up from them. Throughout most of the college application process, the students do the wooing and the waiting. But now it's their turn to be the decider. Plunk a few hundred bucks down to reserve a spot, make the travel arrangements, and start planning the dorm room decor.

That is, unless you're on a waiting list. Colleges that get too few "yeses" are now looking to those wait lists to make sure the numbers add up. From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: A few weeks ago, Javier Acevedo sent $800 to George Washington University in D.C. to reserve his spot in the class of 2015. But when I called him in Puerto Rico this week, he was still holding out some hope for Johns Hopkins. He's on the wait list there.

Javier Acevedo: It's almost like being in a state of purgatory. You're not in, you're not out, it's pretty strange.

Scott: So do you have any idea how many other students are on the wait list at Hopkins?

Acevedo: I would imagine the number is very large.

Try 2,700 for a class of just over 1,200. I stopped by campus the other day to find out why. Outside the Hopkins admissions office a banner welcomes admitted students. Almost 20,000 people applied for those coveted spots this year -- a record.

John Latting is the university's dean of undergraduate admissions. While wait lists keep getting longer at many colleges, he says this year's list is actually smaller than last year's by about 1,000 students.

John Latting: We're trying to be as fair as possible, and as transparent and really not needlessly raise expectations of people.

Still, the Hopkins wait list is more than twice the size of the freshman class. And last year -- of more than 3,000 on that list -- only 32 got in.

Latting: And there are years where we might need 150, 170. There are years when we literally don't admit a single person off the wait list.

The thing is, Latting has a tough job. If he doesn't fill enough seats that's lost revenue for the university. If he fills too many, it means overcrowded classrooms and dorms. Yet he never knows if the students he accepts will accept Hopkins.

Barmak Nassirian is with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. He says students apply to so many colleges these days, it's harder for people like Latting to judge how serious they are. Technology and the rise of the common application have made it easy to apply to a handful of schools with a few mouse clicks.

Barmak Nassirian: The wait list becomes a device by which you can sort of attempt to control that. That if you play it conservative and if you come in under, you can always have a second bite of the apple. That's the notion.

Allie Mendelsohn: It's a classic case of hedging your bets. But twice the size of your freshman class? Come on. That's crazy.

Allie Mendelsohn is an education consultant. She helps kids navigate the college search. She says long wait lists are cruel to students. Two of her clients are on wait lists this year. She tells them not to take it personally.

Mendelsohn: It might be that you had a wonderful SATs, fabulous recommendation, the best essay. And it might be that what they really need is a math major who plays the oboe and comes from Arkansas, and you just can't be that person.

And that's why Johns Hopkins' wait list is 2,700 instead of 300. Admissions Dean John Latting says he has to look at the class so far and see where the gaps are.

Latting: We're forming a community of people, and we have many constituencies around the university that we serve. So we need to keep our options open, 'cause we just don't know what kind of student we're gonna be needing.

If it turns out they need an international studies major from Puerto Rico, Javier Acevedo may be in luck. But he says at times he thinks a flat "no" would have been better than a long-shot "maybe."

In Baltimore, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.


The May 1st decision deadline may be over, but many colleges still have space available for the fall. Check out Amy's blog post to find out more.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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