College wait list got you down? What to do if you’ve been deferred

The Wall Street Journal’s Melissa Korn shares some sobering news about wait lists at American colleges and universities for the Class of ’21. Here at IN, we knew this year would look different, and that deferments would be up. Check out our earlier post about deferrals if you too are caught in this long line.

This should serve as a reminder to let schools know if you’ve taken them out of the running.  Remember, on average, you will attend approximately 12% of the colleges you’ve applied to; inform the other 88%, so they can share the seat they have tentatively saved for you.



Expect College Wait Lists to Be Obnoxiously Long This Year
With students applying to more schools, admissions officers struggle to predict who will actually accept their offers

At Stanford University, 68% of students admitted to the freshman class enrolled in the fall 2020.

Many college admissions officers are stumped this spring over how many applicants to admit.

Their mathematical models to predict which admitted students might accept their offers and enroll as freshmen are proving useless because the coronavirus pandemic threw most traditional elements of the admissions process—campus visits, standardized tests, essays about busy extracurricular schedules—into disarray.

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Accepting the right number of students is critical. If too many say yes, dorms may be overcrowded. If too many spurn the offers, the school could face a revenue shortfall.

Applications submitted via the Common App, which is used by more than 900 schools, rose by 11% nationwide through March 1. But the number of applicants increased by just 2.4%, meaning nearly the same number of students are casting a wider net.

“I think it will be a nail-biter,” said MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for enrollment management and student success at New York University. That school received more than 100,000 applications this year and aims to enroll a first-year class of about 6,000 students.

At schools including Georgia Tech, factors like whether international students will make it to campus and if classes will be in-person could affect whether students accept admission offers.

Yield, or the share of admitted students who enroll, is closely tracked by enrollment management offices, university leaders and even bond-rating agencies who use the number to determine how much demand there is for a school.

Nationwide, the average yield for freshmen was about 33% in the years just before the pandemic, down from 48% in 2007, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Rates at sought-after schools are higher, but not always by much. Yale University’s yield for the fall 2019 entering class was 69%—and fell to 55% this past fall, meaning nearly as many students declined or deferred their invitations as accepted them. Stanford University’s figures were 82% in fall 2019 and 68% in fall 2020. And Georgetown’s slipped below 45% this past fall.

Wait lists have been bloated for years, used by colleges as a cushion along with binding early-decision programs, to ensure a complete class without sacrificing selectivity. But this year schools are expecting to turn to them as early as next month and pluck students well into late summer.

College counselors say they also anticipate that even more will engage in a dance that has hints of a seventh-grader telling a classmate, “I like you, but only if you say you like me too,” confirming applicants would come if they got off the wait list before making the offer.

“The wait lists are going to be obnoxious this year,” said Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at the Georgia Institute of Technology, meaning they will be both long and active for a long time. Last year, some highly selective colleges dipped into their reserves beginning in early April, and continued to do so through July, and he expected that prolonged process may be even more drawn-out now.

‘The wait lists are going to be obnoxious this year.’— Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech
Mr. Clark ticked off the variables with which schools are contending, including whether international students will make it to campus, if classes will be in-person, how family finances were affected by the pandemic and which way virus and vaccination rates are trending.

Every time students are taken from a wait list and accept the new offer, they give up a spot elsewhere. That school turns to its wait list, and down the dominoes go.

Aaron Fulk, director of college counseling at Marin Academy, a high school in California, said he is frustrated by the current system in which schools want high application numbers and a low acceptance rate, but also want to predict and protect their yields.

“They’re trying to have all the things, and that’s how you create a very complicated, deluded and highly inefficient system,” he said.

Before the 2008 recession, the yield rate at Furman University in South Carolina was in the low-to-mid 30% range. Since the downturn, the private school, with a strong regional reputation and growing national pull, has hovered in the low 20s. And last year, it fell to 16%, with far-flung students opting to stay closer to home.

The current first-year class was about 75 people, or 15%, short of the target. Applications rose 36% this year, but Brad Pochard, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid, said he knows it won’t necessarily translate into a jump in enrollment.

He said Furman doesn’t have the luxury of leaning on wait lists, estimating that there is only a 50% chance it can lure someone away from another midmarket private college or a lower-price public flagship university.

Mr. Pochard is erring on the side of admitting more candidates outright this year.

Schools likely won’t know enrollment numbers until classes begin, as students increasingly make deposits to hold their spots at multiple schools to keep their options open, said Mr. Clark of Georgia Tech.

“They may double deposit, but they can’t actually show up in two different places,” he said. “It’s not a Hermione Granger situation.

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