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College Admissions: All Over But the Waiting

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The emotional phases of college admissions, not unlike Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, come in a predictable pattern: excitement, depression/anxiety, anger, disillusionment, and relief. "Closure" occurs for most of us when the deposit check is in the mail, and all the flotsam from the ordeal has been tossed -- with any luck, by mid-April.

But for many families, the "process" didn't end when the decisions came out last week. In my town, and in hundreds of other similarly ambitious communities around the country, thousands of kids found themselves neither accepted nor rejected, but placed on a wait list.

Being put on the wait list is not unlike being told by your prom-date hopeful, "I think you're great, and if Sally tells me no, you're it!" To be wait listed is to be second string, the understudy, a B-list invite. The one they really want, with better qualifications, more merit, and just the right blend of academic achievements, personal charm, and selfless service to community -- well, if that person can't make it, we'll settle for you!

Why is this happening? "We have such big wait lists because the system is so unstable," Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT and now a private college consultant, told me. Thanks to the ease of the Common App, kids now apply, on average, to 12 colleges or universities, she said. And colleges welcome the high volume: the $75 application fee, when multiplied times thousands of applicants, brings real money to colleges, especially those without substantial endowments. More important, the number of applications is the denominator in most U.S. News & World Report measurements, and the higher the number the more selective a college appears.

But admissions officers operate in a vacuum: they don't know where else each student is applying. It has gotten very hard to know among all of these applicants who is the right match, and who among the admitted will actually enroll, making it tougher to predict yield -- the term of choice to describe the percentage of accepted kids who actually enroll in a college. In the perfect world of an admissions officer, the number of students who enroll will equal the number of available slots. "There's the hope that everyone will come to my party if they're invited," Jones said. Of course, not even Harvard has a 100 percent yield, so all colleges admit more kids than they have room for. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for instance, where the reported yield for 2012 was 20 percent, admissions officers would likely have admitted five times the number of students they could accommodate. But if more students decline than the admissions office has estimated, the admissions staff will have to pick someone off the wait list.

And who is put on the wait list? Admissions offices will wait list a kid as a courtesy to a legacy. Or they'll offer it to a promising student whose calculus grade, say, has suddenly dropped; being wait listed will give her a chance to bring it back up. Alternatively, perhaps the number one student at a high school the college wants to cultivate isn't quite qualified. Putting him on the wait list sends a message to the school that it should encourage other candidates to apply next year. In short, admissions officers think of wait listed students as admitted, pending space. Waitlisted students, on the other hand, consider it a soft rejection, or just plain torture.

The wait list is one more manifestation of the arms race inherent in college admissions. Colleges invite more applications than they can reasonably evaluate. At the most selective colleges, each officer evaluates 40-60 applications a day, Jones said. Many students suffer through years of preparation, send out a dozen or more apps to secure their futures, and end up feeling crushed. It doesn't help that some kids use the college process to massage their egos. Even after being admitted to their first choice school via non-binding early action, some kids don't withdraw their applications to their less-desired colleges. The joy that comes from receiving another fat "you're accepted" envelope outweighs the empathy one might have for the less-distinguished classmate who would be thrilled to be admitted to another's safety school. And parents, whether status obsessed or sympathetic to the sacrifices and desires of their offspring, resort to more absurd measures to help their kids' chances. One friend eager to optimize her tenth grader's college options admitted -- in jest, I think -- "We're looking into competitive ping pong."

Not unlike the flight reservation system, the process has grown so screwy and complex that many colleges hire specialized consultants to help them manage it. Maguire Associates, Noel-Levitz, and Ellucian are a few of the private companies that top colleges pay to help them recruit and retain students. Ellucian, a vaguely pharmaceutical-sounding company based in Fairfax, Virginia, boasts of helping more than 2,400 institutions of higher ed "move education forward." One particular service they provide is what's called "Banner Recruiting and Admissions Performance... a tightly integrated package of scorecards, dashboards, reports, and analytic capabilities that provides admissions and enrollment managers, institutional researchers, and executives with the information they need to track progress toward your institution's enrollment goals." And remember, kids, it's all about finding the right fit.

To be clear: it's not for the kids that colleges bulk up their wait lists. It's to safeguard their standing in a magazine, which in turn protects the bottom line. Though none of this should come as a surprise, it's still mildly disorienting to consider the extent to which college admissions has devolved into a giant competition among our very best schools to move up a list. University administrators argue that a higher rank attracts better professors, more talented students, and more donated money, and anyway, what can they do? But when the rankings come out over the summer, the same college officials who condemn what U.S. News has done to higher education "wave it around like a bride's garter belt if their school gets a favorable review," writes Andrew Ferguson in Crazy U, his scathing takedown of the college process.

"Let's stop this," Jones told me. To restore sanity to the process, she suggests that the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a collection of top private colleges, decide collectively to disregard the U.S. News rankings. She also wants colleges to tell the truth about what they're looking for in applicants, so that kids who don't fit the culture or who lack the necessary credentials won't apply. Taken together, these steps would likely reduce the number of applications, which would allow colleges to spend more time actually evaluating the candidates. With fewer applicants to review, admissions offices could begin to modify the application, so that students would have more authentic opportunities to express themselves. "Everybody has to start together," Jones said. "This is the education of the human species. There's nothing more important than this."