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Waitlisted: When colleges hold all the cards

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The National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC) asks that colleges provide each waitlisted student with a fair assessment of their odds of being ultimately being admitted.

Under a published list of student “rights,” NACAC states

“If You Are Placed on a Wait/Alternate List: The letter that notifies you of that placement should provide a history that describes the number of students on the wait list, the number offered admission, and the availability of financial aid and housing.”

Yet according to a study completed by NACAC in 2012, 72 percent of the colleges and universities responding to NACAC's annual admissions trends survey did not inform students about their position on the waitlist or their likelihood of admission.

Although 80 percent provided some written information about waitlist policies, this information generally pertained to directions for remaining on the waitlist (93%), the amount of time students had to respond to being accepted from the waitlist (64%), and the last date that admission offers would be made (59%)

A year later, NACAC found that 43 percent of colleges used a waitlist—up from 32 percent in 2002. Forty-one percent of colleges and universities reported increases from fall 2011 to fall 2012 in the number of students who were placed on waitlists. And colleges with wait lists admitted an average of 25 percent of all students who chose to remain on waitlists—down from 31 percent the previous year.

NACAC began studying waitlist policies and procedures out of a growing concern for students being used in an aggressive war among colleges to improve “yield.” Specifically, it came to NACAC's attention that some colleges were suggesting an offer of admission to waitlisted students but not providing them with adequate time or information with which to make decisions.

In fact, it's not unusual to hear about coy conversations between admissions staff and waitlisted students starting something like, “If you were offered admission from the waitlist, would you accept?”

In some circles this doesn’t count as an "admit." If the student demurs or doesn’t respond positively, then the offer isn’t formally made and the number doesn’t count against yield.

Sadly in the waitlist game, colleges hold all the cards. Not only can they use the waitlist to further enrollment management goals, but they often do so with callous disregard to the anxiety and stress these lists cause.

Although some colleges do provide waitlist statistics for families to review, most do not. The clever and well informed applicant can check various publications and websites or use Common Data Set (CDS) information to try to get at the numbers and trends. But not all colleges cooperate.

For example, Columbia University, Fordham, Tufts, and the University of Chicago don’t make the CDS public. Brown, Northeastern, NYU, UCLA, and Washington University publish the CDS but mysteriously leave the question pertaining to waitlist numbers (C2) blank. Wake Forest specifically states on their CDS form that they “do not publish” waitlist information. And although Georgetown and Harvard publish all the data, what they have online is several years out of date.

Why some colleges are so hesitant to be public about their waitlists isn’t such a mystery. Waitlists are getting longer and the odds of being plucked off the list are stacked against the average applicant. But colleges need waitlists and have no problem stringing along several thousand students for the purpose of admitting only a handful.

And they know it isn’t a pretty picture.

Here are some numbers from a few well-regarded institutions (except where noted, these figures come from 2013-14 CDS information):

  • Boston University
    Waitlisted: 2649 (1191 accepted a position on the waitlist)
    Admitted: 65
  • Cal Tech
    Waitlisted: 550 (432 accepted waitlist)
    Admitted: 0
  • Duke University (2012-13)
    Admitted: 310
  • Georgia Tech
    Waitlisted: 2612 (1655 accepted waitlist)
    Admitted: 270
  • Johns Hopkins University (2012-13)
    Waitlisted: 2730 (2442 accepted waitlist)
    Admitted: 1
  • MIT (2012-13)
    Waitlisted: 849 (766 accepted waitlist)
    Admitted: 0
  • Northwestern University (2012-13)
    Waitlisted: 2852 (1606 accepted waitlist)
    Admitted: 14
  • Rice University (2012-13)
    Waitlisted: 2304 (1402 accepted waitlist)
    Admitted: 52
  • University of Notre Dame (2012-13)
    Waitlisted: 2461 (1153 accepted waitlist)
    Admitted: 86
  • University of Pennsylvania (2012-13)
    Waitlisted: 2017 (1249 accepted waitlist)
    Admitted: 87

*Correction

This is the second in a series of articles on waitlists.

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