Tuesday May 20, 10:45 pm ET By Anjali Athavaley
Here's a bright spot in an otherwise brutal college-admissions season: More students are being accepted from wait lists at elite schools this year because colleges found it harder to predict how many graduating seniors would join the freshman class.
Boston College says it will admit about 250 students from its wait list, up from last year's 117. Harvard University says it will take at least 200 students, compared with 50 last year. Princeton University expects to take at least 90 students this year, up from 47. The University of Pennsylvania has admitted 90 students from the wait list this year, up from 65 last year. And Georgetown University is admitting 80, up from 29 last year.
Some state colleges and smaller liberal-arts schools are also drawing more from their wait lists. The University of Wisconsin-Madison expects to take 800 from the wait list this year, compared with six students last year. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is admitting 300 students from the wait list, up from 226 last year. Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., has so far taken 36 students off the wait list this year, up from 24 last year.
The wait-list bonanza isn't because colleges have more slots available for students -- in fact, overall enrollment levels at many schools remained the same as last year.
Instead, colleges this year faced more uncertainty in the applications process. For one thing, there's a growing population of high-school seniors -- many of whom submit applications to multiple schools. But for highly selective schools, what really affected the process was the move by two Ivy League schools to end their early-admissions programs. Also at play were policy changes that made more financial aid available to middle- and upper-class students.
"It was certainly a year in which there was more uncertainty than I've experienced in over 30 years in admissions," says , Harvard's dean of admissions and financial aid.
Wait-list activity at one school can affect competitors, who may lose students as a result. But such moves also trickle down and open up spots for other hopeful students. "It's like a domino effect," says , a counselor at Deerfield High School in Illinois.
Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., for instance, has lost four students because they were accepted from wait lists at Princeton, Harvard and Columbia universities. In turn, the school has taken 16 students from its own wait list.
College officials say they expect wait-list activity to be drawn out longer this year. So some students have already accepted one college's offer only to be accepted from the wait list of the college they prefer. If they switch to their preferred college, they automatically lose the enrollment deposit -- often amounting to hundreds of dollars -- they paid to the first school.
Alex Jefferson, 18, illustrates the uncertainty of the wait-list game. Mr. Jefferson, a senior at Bellaire High School in Houston, Texas, applied to 12 schools. He was accepted at eight and wait-listed at two: the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis. He was holding out for both but sent an enrollment deposit to Northwestern University expecting that he wouldn't get off either wait list.
To his surprise, he was accepted to both. He has decided to attend the University of Pennsylvania, but there's a catch: Mr. Jefferson has decided to defer for a year to go to Israel. Still, getting into a top choice this late in the year is thrilling.
"I was in shock," Mr. Jefferson says. When an admission representative from the University of Pennsylvania called, he accepted immediately. "It's so unheard of to get off the wait list."
The unpredictable nature of college admissions began in the fall of 2006, when Harvard and Princeton announced they would eliminate early-admissions programs, leading this year's applicants who would have otherwise committed to those schools to send multiple applications to other top schools. Harvard and Princeton expected to lose a portion of their admitted students to competitors. And other highly selective schools thought that some applicants would hold out for Harvard and Princeton.
Second, as Congress pressured schools to spend more of their endowments on students, Stanford, Yale and Harvard universities altered their financial-aid eligibility requirements to include more middle- and upper-class students. And other schools in the past year have said they would cap or eliminate need-based loans in financial-aid packages and replace them with grants.
Such uncertainties led many schools to be conservative in their initial round of acceptances. Colleges say the worst-case scenario is to have more students enroll than can be accommodated with on-campus housing. "We had a limited number of beds on campus," says , Princeton's dean of admission. "We had intended to come in below our target and then use the wait list."
Also at stake for elite schools is yield -- the percentage of students accepted who decide to attend. That figure is closely monitored by competing schools, potential donors and applicants as an indication of a college's appeal.
By accepting fewer students than what they need initially and pulling from the wait list later, colleges can try to minimize the number of students who receive offers and say "no." "They can actually boost their yield," says , who was an admissions officer at Stanford for 15 years and is now director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School.
Students who have been wait listed and are willing to hold out for their top choices generally let the schools know. Additionally, "a lot of colleges will call the students on the wait list to see if they are interested," says , dean of admission at the University of Virginia. "So I think a lot of times, colleges are able to be pretty accurate in predicting which wait-list people will come."
The University of Virginia, like Harvard and Princeton, ended its early-admissions programs this year after concluding that policies put low-income and underrepresented students at a disadvantage. Critics of early-admission programs say that they don't enable low-income students to compare financial aid packages.
All three schools saw their yields decline this year, as admissions officials expected. Princeton's was about 60%, while in previous years, when the school still offered early admission, that figure was 67% or 68%. Harvard's Mr. Fitzsimmons expects the yield to be about 76% this year, down from 78%. At the University of Virginia, the yield declined to 48.8% this year from 50.8% last year -- but the drop wasn't as large as anticipated, so the school has not yet taken any students from the wait list this year, Mr. Blackburn says.
To be sure, not all schools are seeing increases in their numbers of wait-list offers. Stanford University, for instance has taken zero students from the wait list so far this year, the same as last year. "We are keeping a small number on the wait list just to respond to other wait list activity around the nation," says , dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid.
Write to Anjali Athavaley at firstname.lastname@example.org