Last week, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the country’s leading college admission organization, released its 10th annual report on trends in college admission counseling. At face value, the numbers look simple: Applications are up while the number of accepted students who enroll (“yield,” in admission parlance) is down. But these numbers are part of a larger story—a story that drives admission officers at almost every college and university around the country.
Three crude metrics drive admission decisions: The number of applications, percentage of applicants who are admitted (admit rate), and percentage of admitted students who matriculate (yield). An admission office is “safe” if applications and yield are steady from year to year; in this case, the admit rate remains steady as well. (The admit rate matters because it’s treated as the most basic measure of selectivity; keeping this number low is a signal of the college’s continuing prestige.)
Ideally, at least from an admission perspective, selectivity improves from year to year. For this to happen, applications and yield must increase predictably so the college can safely admit fewer students while still enrolling the target number of students (“filling the class”).
But who lives in an ideal world? While applications at most colleges have increased steadily since 1997, a universal increase in applications (such as we have seen) is not necessarily an indication that any one college is becoming more attractive to students. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Students, nervous about receiving too many rejection letters, are applying to more colleges.
This complicates matters. If applications are up everywhere, any individual school will struggle to increase yield significantly. The students they admit are applying to an increasing number of schools, which makes where they ultimately enroll less predictable. Schools in this position risk a decline in selectivity, which can quickly become a decline in the all-important rankings.
If selectivity decreases for multiple years in a row, admission offices are forced to modify the way they attract and accept applications:
• Schools with an early decision (ED) option will accept a higher percentage of their ED applications. Doing so means that they need to accept fewer students during regular admission. This keeps the admit rate lower and yield higher.
• Put lower-quality full-paying students on the waitlist. Usually these are students who weren’t good enough for an initial admit, but look great when the enrollment deadline is looming and matriculation is down.
• Change the application process. Some schools will prioritize lower-quality students who are more likely to matriculate over less predictable higher-quality students. If the school is worried about a decline in the academic profile of the incoming class, they may choose to make standardized test scores optional.
These changes, though small, have a big impact. And sometimes, they pave the way for more substantial manipulations, such as when an administrator at Claremont McKenna manipulated SAT scores to protect the college’s spot in the rankings.
We’ve essentially created an infinite loop. Students, fearing rejection, apply to more colleges (spending hundreds of dollars in the process). Colleges, nervous about unpredictable yield, focus on admitting the students who are most likely to matriculate—thereby keeping their admit rate low. This perpetuates the use of rejection as a form of selectivity, which brings us right back to where we started. No one is winning, everyone fears rejection, and selectivity reigns.