The art and science of the college waitlist

UC Berkeley students walk through Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif.

Kai Ryssdal: There's a certain consistency to the college application process. Applications have due dates. Acceptance letters come out on a schedule. Deposits to guarantee a spot in the freshman class have deadlines. Next thing you know, it's time for class.

But after four years of a slow economy and steadily rising tuition, that process has changed a little and schools are trying to figure it out. From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR, Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: When it came time to collect deposits for this fall’s incoming class, Chapman University in Orange, Calif., came up about 30 students short. So for the first time in three years, the private college turned to its waitlist.

Vice chancellor for enrollment Mike Pelly says so did a lot of Chapman’s competitors.

Mike Pelly: One student said, oh, well you’re the fourth college to call, and I had two options before. Now I have six. So it’s a whole different game.

And it’s not just private schools pulling students off the bench. Brent Yunek is assistant vice chancellor of enrollment services at the University of California, Irvine. He says this year Irvine waitlisted about 1,600 students.

Brent Yunek: We were able to accommodate all of them.

The past two years, Yunek says he didn’t touch the waiting list. But this year he deliberately accepted too few students, initially. He says it’s getting harder to predict how many students will accept an offer of admission. With the common application, it’s easy to apply to lots of schools at once. At the same time, the bad economy and rising tuition have made it harder for some students to say “yes.”

Leon Washington is dean of admissions at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. This year he guessed little too well.

Leon Washington: Typically we try to take a few every year, so as to legitimize the wait list. Unfortunately, this year the yield came in so high we weren’t able to.

According to data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, typically around a third of waitlisted students eventually get in.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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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