Thursday, May 29, 2008

Glass Floor: Colleges Reject Top Applicants, Accepting Only the Students Likely to Enroll

May 29, 2001


When it came to choosing next year's freshman class at Franklin and Marshall College, admission director Gregory Goldsmith hit upon a curious way of boosting the Lancaster, Pa., school's stature. He spurned 140 of its smartest applicants.

The prospective students submitted Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and grades well above the average for applicants to the college. In past years, Mr. Goldsmith says, the college invariably admitted similarly qualified students who, like these, hadn't bothered to interview with the school. And usually, only half a dozen or so of them would enroll. "They think they're Ivy material," Mr. Goldsmith says.

So he relegated the overachievers to the waiting list. By doing so, he wove a statistical illusion, making the liberal-arts college appear more desirable and selective without actually raising the quality of its incoming freshman class.

Colleges once aimed to admit the best applicants and reserved their waiting lists for marginal ones. But today, more and more colleges -- particularly those just below elite status -- reject students they consider overqualified, consigning to their waiting lists those applicants whom they suspect will snub them for a better offer.

Available for Manipulation

Behind this shift is a statistic known as the yield rate -- the percentage of accepted applicants who then enroll. College guidebooks, bond-rating agencies and prospective faculty and administrators increasingly use yield, along with a college's acceptance rate, as a measure of a college's appeal. Yield and acceptance rates for a college's entering class together account for one-fourth of the "student selectivity" score in the influential US News & World Report annual rankings of colleges and universities, enough to raise or lower a school's position by several spots. And these rates, unlike faculty resources or alumni contributions, are the only variables in the rankings that admissions directors can manipulate.

During the past decade, as it has become commonplace for high-school seniors to apply to a dozen or more colleges, the average yield for a private university has dropped to 38% from 46%. To counter this trend, more colleges have begun considering likelihood of enrollment in admissions decisions. But like controversial preferences for athletes, minorities and the children of alumni, the yield factor diminishes the importance of academic performance in ranking colleges and universities.

The 'Old School' View

"I have real reservations" about taking yield into account, says Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, dean of admission at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "I'm from the old school. I believe you admit the students who flow to the top in a competitive pool."

Set in the heart of Amish country, Franklin and Marshall, founded in 1787 with a gift from Benjamin Franklin, has an undergraduate enrollment of nearly 2,000 students. By wait-listing top applicants who didn't visit the campus or interview with college representatives, the college bumped up its yield for the next school year to 27% from 25%. It also improved its acceptance rate -- the ratio of acceptances to total applications -- to a more selective 51% from 53%. Such numbers could help Franklin and Marshall rise in the US News ranking of national liberal-arts colleges from its current position of 33rd. And it saved the merit aid it otherwise might have spent to lure students away from their first choices.

Only 16 of the 140 outstanding applicants opted for spots on the waiting list, supporting Mr. Goldsmith's hunch that, for most of them, the college was a fallback. Since it probably would have lost most of the applicants anyway, the college sacrificed only a marginal gain in average SAT scores and class rank among incoming freshmen -- a price Mr. Goldsmith was willing to pay.

He says that the motivation for wait-listing the applicants was partly to boost the school's yield rate, and equally, to ensure that those who were accepted would fit well with the school. "We know our place in the food chain of higher education," he says. "We're not a community college. And we're not Harvard."

Mr. Goldsmith acknowledges that high-school guidance counselors "are screaming bloody murder" at the rough treatment accorded stellar students. Indeed, he says, two of the 140 students he identified as overqualified weren't accepted elsewhere and are in limbo.

Rory Bled, college adviser at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif., says several colleges wait-listed its outstanding applicants this year while admitting weaker ones. "How do I explain" to those students, she asks, "that they were simply too good?"

Ms. Bled declines to identify the students or colleges. However, Berkeley High senior Arianna Cassidy, who scored 1450 on her SATs (out of a possible 1600) and had a 3.9 grade-point average, was accepted at Brown and Cornell universities and Amherst College, but not at Tufts University in suburban Boston, a school generally ranked lower than the others.

Ms. Cassidy, who plans to attend Brown, wonders whether Tufts checked her financial-aid form, on which she listed the colleges where she intended to apply, and decided to place her on its waiting list because she was unlikely to enroll anyway. She says she loves the Boston area and would have considered Tufts strongly.

"I thought my Tufts interview was the best of all," she says.

David Cuttino, dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts, declines to discuss the specifics of Ms. Cassidy's application. He acknowledges that only 20% of students Tufts accepts who have test scores and grades comparable to Ms. Cassidy's enroll there -- far below the university's overall yield rate of 35%. But he says yield isn't why Tufts turns down half of such applicants. Instead, he says, Tufts seeks a "diverse and intriguing" student body and doesn't base decisions solely on grades and scores.

Emory University in Atlanta is credited by other schools with popularizing the yield game. A longtime safety school for would-be Ivy Leaguers, it has boosted its yield to 33% from 23% a decade ago by favoring strong applicants who, all other things being equal, make the most contacts with the school -- interviews, campus overnight visits, college fairs and the like. Daniel Walls, Emory's dean of admissions, describes contacts as a "tip factor" that makes the difference between a student's being accepted or wait-listed.

Diminishing Chances

Over the years, predicting enrollment has evolved from guesswork into science. Some colleges accept more relatives of alumni, not just to please prospective donors, but also because "legacies" enroll at a 5% to 10% higher rate than other students. Many colleges rely on consulting firms to help them enhance yield by identifying prospective students on the basis of variables like zip code, religion, first-choice major and extracurricular interests, as well as academic performance. In some of these models, if an applicant's test scores exceed the college's median, the probability of enrollment drops.

Noel-Levitz, a Colorado-based unit of educational-loan provider USA Group, is one of the largest admissions consultants, advising 250 colleges a year. Its computer models predict whether students are likely to enroll on a scale of 0.01 to 0.99. Another firm, George Dehne & Associates, drew up a recruitment plan for Franklin and Marshall in the mid-1990s that called for the school's admission office to begin giving weight to the interest shown by applicants. Mr. Goldsmith says the college nonetheless continued to admit top students even if they didn't interview -- until Mr. Goldsmith this year began requiring demonstration of interest as a condition of acceptance even for the best students.

It helps colleges to know the competition. Applicants to Boston University, Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for example, are asked to list other colleges they're considering. This question offends some guidance counselors so much that they advise students to leave it blank. But if applicants are seeking scholarship money, college-admissions offices can glean the same information from the federal financial-aid form that most schools require.

Although the form doesn't ask students to rank schools by preference, research by Maguire Associates, a Bedford, Mass., consulting firm, shows that most students do exactly that. Admissions officers also often call a guidance counselor and simply ask whether their college is an applicant's first choice. If it isn't, the counselor may avoid answering the question -- though evasion may be tantamount to confirmation.

The waiting list is a handy litmus test of an applicant's sincerity because students whose first choice is elsewhere often prefer not to wait. Given the chance, wait-listed students are more likely to enroll than those who are accepted right away. "I've certainly thought about driving up yield by increasing the waiting list," says Paul Marthers, director of admissions at Oberlin. "There's a joke in admissions: If you want a great acceptance rate and a great yield, just put everyone on the waiting list."

Priority Waiting

Carnegie Mellon University takes this strategy to an extreme. The Pittsburgh school offers spots on a priority waiting list to students who pay a $400 deposit -- forfeitable under certain conditions if the student turns down an admission offer. For the coming school year, 60 students on the priority list were offered enrollment, and 57 accepted -- a 95% yield. Michael Steidel, director of undergraduate admission, acknowledges that the priority waiting list improves yield, but mostly, he says, "we do it for the kids."

Yield also drives the proliferation of early-decision programs in which seniors apply in the fall to their first-choice college. These programs have virtually a 100% yield because applicants commit to attend if accepted. Most private universities now fill at least one-third of their slots by early admission, up from one-fifth of their slots a decade ago.

Brown, an Ivy League school in Providence, R.I., plans to switch to an early-decision plan next year from an early-action program, which doesn't require a pledge of enrollment. People close to the situation say Brown was disappointed that some of its early-action acceptances were opting for Ivy League competitors, particularly Harvard, which has a yield of nearly 80%, the highest among major universities. Michael Goldberger, Brown's director of admission, says the move to early-decision was intended to reduce staff workload, but he expects it also will raise Brown's yield in the fall of 2002 to 58% from 53%.

With an SAT score of 1530, a top-10 class rank at a competitive high school, and top scores on four advanced-placement exams, Elizabeth Mahoney was accepted under the early-action program at Harvard. But she didn't consider it her first choice.

The Belmont, Mass., student then applied to Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Dartmouth. When alumni from the first three interviewed her and asked where else she had applied, Ms. Mahoney confessed that she had gotten into Harvard. She was subsequently rejected at Yale and Columbia and wait-listed at Princeton. Only Dartmouth, which didn't interview her, accepted her. Ms. Mahoney hasn't decided where she will go.

Admission directors at Yale, Princeton and Columbia say yield doesn't influence their verdicts. Princeton and Columbia say Ms. Mahoney's Harvard acceptance couldn't have had a bearing on her case because the alumni interviewers failed to mention it in their reports. Yale declines to comment on her application.

'Market Position'

Connecticut College in New London, Conn., can't afford to ignore yield. By giving weight to applicant contacts, it boosted yield to 34% in 2000 from 28% in 1995 while lowering its acceptance rate to 32% from 50%. Last November, when Moody's Investors Service revised the outlook on the college's A2 credit rating from stable to negative, citing operating deficits, the bond-rating agency nonetheless pointed to the school's "improving student market position" -- i.e., strong yield -- as a positive sign.

For the coming year, Connecticut College accepted only 18% of students who made no contact other than their applications, compared with a 34% acceptance rate overall. Many of the rejects, admission dean Lee Coffin acknowledges, were "compelling" and "strong academically."

Mr. Coffin won't comment on specific applicants. However, of the four applicants from the United Nations International School in New York City to Connecticut College this year, Lindsay Nevard boasted the best grades (an "A" average) and the highest SAT score (1350, 40 points above the college's median for next fall's freshman class). Her application to the liberal-arts college featured 16 slides of her paintings and charcoal sketches, as well as an essay about her reaction to a burglar's nearly fatal assault on her mother last summer.

"I felt as if I were trapped inside a giant balloon," she wrote. "The world appeared muted and filtered and I was terrified that the rubbery walls around me would pop at any moment, leaving me with no sense of security or protection."

Ms. Nevard applied to Connecticut College after a visit during her junior year, when she met several "relaxed and cool" students. But she didn't interview there. Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., both of which rank higher than Connecticut in most major guidebooks, accepted Ms. Nevard. Connecticut College admitted two of her classmates, but she was wait-listed. She plans to attend Vassar.

Write to Daniel Golden at

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