Uncertainty on wait lists as US colleges face enrolment disruption

Selective institutions again face backsliding in perennial challenge of guessing how many admitted students will accept

March 2, 2022
Unicyclist stumbles with two people supporting him to illustrate uncertainty on wait lists as US colleges face enrolment disruption
Source: Alamy

Selective US universities are confronting new challenges in guessing which of their accepted students will enrol this autumn, with substantial dollars and status at stake for both the institutions and their applicants.

The perennial chore of estimating student yield rates and generating appropriately sized waiting lists has been heightened this year by a variety of factors that include and predate Covid-related disruptions, among them the de-emphasising of standardised tests and other attempts to improve racial and economic equity as well as the growing ease of coordinated online application systems.

Such changes, according to experts, offer institutions and applicants more options. However, they also raise stresses for students and their families while threatening universities with losses to bank accounts and reputations if too many or too few of their admissions offers are rejected.

“I do understand why the most selective colleges are concerned,” said Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. “The pandemic scrambled the admissions landscape, and wealthy students apply to more colleges than in the past.”

Chronic volatility was a feature of selective US college admissions even before the pandemic. Examples include Princeton University, which accepted 101 undergraduate students from its waiting list in 2017 and none in 2018. Several other institutions – including Dartmouth College and Cornell University – also saw sharp year-to-year variations in their waiting list acceptances over the past decade or so, according to a tally by The Daily Princetonian student newspaper.

Some institutions had managed to tamp down those fluctuations only to see them flare up during the pandemic, when admissions offices were confronted with large jumps in the numbers of students who deferred their acceptances rather than begin their post-secondary lives in online formats. Stanford University admitted 259 students from an 850-member waiting list for the 2020-21 academic year, after taking only eight through that route a year earlier, according to the educational consulting company IvyWise.

The admissions cycle is just now reaching the moment when many US colleges and universities start announcing their acceptance decisions. With that, anxieties about erratic waiting list patterns were revived by a major court ruling against the University of California, Berkeley in a long-running legal battle with city residents over students living in overcrowded off-campus conditions. The university is appealing against the verdict, but in the meantime it has warned that compliance will mean rejecting a third of its expected intake.

For all their advanced analytical capabilities, universities likely will always struggle to estimate correctly how many of their accepted students will agree to enrol somewhere else, said one expert.

“No model can give you the insight about what your competition is doing, and that’s always the wild card you can’t control for,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, vice-provost of enrolment at Oregon State University and a leading admissions expert.

Institutions may desire the reputational advantages of a high yield rate, he said, but they are also usually quite happy to enrol any student they already had deemed qualified who reiterates their interest through the waiting list process.

The waiting process seems more harmful for students, especially in the case of institutions that create “massive wait lists compared to the number they might eventually admit”, Mr Boeckenstedt said. “That part seems really unfair to students.”


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