Being offered a spot on a college wait list is like pursuing a relationship with a wishy-washy crush. “I like you, you’re great, but I can’t commit… right now.” In both situations, a course of action isn’t clear. Is it best to hold out in the hopes that your dreams will come true, while risking being crushed emotionally through inaction? Or to cut your losses and move on? For thousands of applicants, the wait list is a frustrating proposition.
In recent years, wait lists have exploded in size and prevalence. In 2003, the University of Chicago’s wait list comprised of just 500 applicants. In 2009, the number had increased to 1,033 applicants. By 2012, a whopping ~3,000 prospective students were placed on the wait list.
Why the sudden change? The answer is simple: the economy. After the economic downturn in 2008, many universities underestimated their “yield” – the percentage of students who accepted their offers of admissions. Students were becoming more cautious in their decision making and hedged their bets by applying to more schools than ever before, resulting in larger applicant pools and lower yields.
Colleges and Universities reacted to the increased number of applicants and unpredictable yield rates by increasing their wait list numbers. This provides a larger pool of potential applicants for filling in the gap in yield numbers. The dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke, Christoph Guttentag, explains another reason behind the swell in waitlists – too many applicants, too little time. “What we could have done, had we had another week,” he said, “was to look at everybody on the waiting list and say, ‘Do they all need to be on?’… Of all the priorities, that was not in the top two or three.”
Benefits for Schools
The wait list serves as a tool to fine-tune an incoming class in light of the aforementioned low yield rates. Says Christoph Guttentag of Duke, “I have no idea what I’m going to need to finish sculpting the class. From an institutional perspective, it’s important that I have some flexibility.”
This flexibility can serve to improve campus diversity, to fill a particular school or program of study, or – more controversially – to cherry pick students who are more likely to help the bottom line. With federal dollars disappearing from education budgets, public colleges and universities increasingly look to out-of-state applicants to help boost profits with higher tuition rates, and a student who can pay in full at a private institution is a hot commodity.
Drawbacks for Students
Many high school counselors are against the recent trend of expanding wait lists, saying that schools are misleading students. Students accepted off of a wait list often have a very short window of time to make their decision. Usually students have at least a day to make a decision, but there are some cases where schools put pressure on students to make a snap decision. John Talmage, director of college counseling at St. Paul’s School in Maryland, had a student who was given just two hours to accept or reject an admission offer from his first choice school.
Mitchell Thompson, a counselor from Scarsdale High School, says that it was unfair to expect any student to make a final decision “in less time that you might take to decide to buy a car,” especially when you consider that, for many students, the decision to attend a school is a huge financial commitment. Students who are offered admission from a wait list often do not have an aid package to review before their decision deadline, and many times these students get the short end of the stick with inadequate aid packages after they have made the commitment. It is certainly worrying that students are expected to make an important financial decision without first having all of the facts, especially when graduates and the nation as a whole are facing a huge student loan bubble.
Establishing Best Practices
At the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Conference, waitlisting was a hot topic for discussion. “Wait lists are becoming the Wild West of the admissions process,” said John Talmage, “There are basically no rules there.”
At the conference, the NACAC proposed some ideas for best practices in wait list policy. One suggestion was to allow students accepted off of the wait list 3 days to make their decision, allowing time to reflect on the financial commitment and to fully weigh the pros and cons of accepting admission. They also proposed a study to evaluate the length of wait lists.
Hopefully the NACAC’s efforts will be able to help the admissions world to balance high numbers of applicants, unpredictable yields, and long wait lists. One solution that we at College Admissions Today would suggest is for admissions departments to make their processes more streamlined and effective through the use of a paperless admissions system such as AMP.