The New College Chaos

College admissions officers say they now have many, many more applications than they know how to handle—and, often, less reliable information to help them decide which students to admit

"While the parents are anxious to help, we want them to understand that the process belongs to the student," says Nanette Tarbouni, the admissions director at the newly hot Washington University. "I'll get a call from a parent saying, 'I'm working on my daughter's application ...'" Robin Mamlet, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford, says, "Noisy parents and students have always been there, but they are especially active this year." Saracino says, "Parents will call up and say, 'We're applying ...' I'd like them to repeat after me: 'We are not applying; my child is applying.'"

The uncertainty of today's admissions climate is connected to the other big theme that ran through our interviews: the increasing marketization of the process. Some aspects of this effect have been widely publicized—for instance, the rise of costly admissions counselors, especially in New York, who charge tens of thousands of dollars to advise students on where and how to apply. The most notorious of these is Katherine Cohen, of IvyWise, in Manhattan, who was profiled at length in New York magazine. She offers a "platinum package" for students that lasts two years and costs $32,995. Colleges themselves have turned to enrollment-management firms for advice on how to attract the students they want. The best known of these is called Noel-Levitz. Its Web site is almost beyond parody, with consultant-speak applied to the business of recruiting, admitting, and retaining students. For instance, the company's consultants can provide "Institutional Image and Competitive Positioning Analysis™"—a "complete enrollment research package [that] offers comprehensive decision data for image enhancement and strategic market positioning." The site continues, "The analysis prepares your institution to compete effectively in its marketplace and to distinguish itself from institutions vying for the same student populations."

But some other aspects of the marketization of admissions have received less public notice than our interviewees think they deserve. These are the related phenomena of waiting-list management, "expressed interest" measures, and "merit aid."

The problem all these tools are designed to solve is a college's surprising lack of control over the makeup of its entering class. To students, a college seems to be in complete control. But once the acceptance letters go out, the balance of power changes. The same uncertainty that plagues students affects colleges when it comes to "yield." Even the most selective colleges know that at most just over half of those they admit will end up enrolling. A college that has learned to expect a 50 percent yield therefore sends out 2,000 acceptances to muster a freshman class of 1,000. But the college can't know exactly how many will accept. Worse, it can't know which ones. In putting together its admittee list it took great pains to strike a balance—men and women, athletes and musicians, black and white, rich and poor. But the vagaries of yield mean that it can end up with a class quite different from what it had in mind. Nearly all the black students might accept—or nearly none. It might have three first-trombone players for the band—and no chemistry students. It might find that a large number of students who need financial aid have accepted—and only a few who can pay their own way.

Thus the colleges look for buffers and safeguards to give them some control. The waiting list is a crucial tool. Students and parents may think of the waiting list as something like a queue in a bakery, or the standby list for an airline flight—that is, a predictable system for determining who comes ahead of whom. The reality of waiting lists is different. The main surprise is that they are huge. Very selective colleges may put hundreds of applicants on the list and ultimately admit only ten or twenty. Harvard is a dramatic case: in recent years it has put significantly more people on its waiting list than it has accepted in its springtime admissions cycle. Harvard typically accepts about 1,000 applicants in the fall under its nonbinding "early-action" program, and another 1,000 in the spring in the "regular" cycle. According to informed accounts, in the spring Harvard also places as many as 1,500 students on the waiting list, of whom it ultimately admits very few—typically a handful, and in some years none. Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, the Harvard undergraduate-admissions drector, declined comment on such reports, but she said that the list contains "several hundred" members. Williams is more representative of elite schools. Last spring it sent acceptance letters to 936 students, on top of the 193 it had accepted under its binding early-decision plan, and it put 700 to 800 more on the waiting list.

Why so many? There are some incidental reasons. Waiting lists can be a way to soften the blow for the children of alumni or for members of other important constituencies, rather than rejecting them outright. At some schools the lists, strangely, have also become a repository for some of the most highly qualified applicants. These colleges know that they are being used as safety schools by students who really want to get into more prestigious and selective institutions. Some safety schools welcome the role, for the occasional extra-strong student it brings them. Many others resent being taken for granted—and react by putting "overqualified" applicants on the waiting list rather than, as they see it, "wasting an admit" on them.

But the main reason for long waiting lists is enrollment management. To return to Williams: about half of the people it placed on its waiting list in early April did not send back the required confirmation that they wanted to stay on the list. Either they had decided to accept a spot elsewhere or they had lost interest in Williams. By early May, as students sent in their enrollment deposits, Williams was beginning to get an idea of how many of those admitted—and which ones—would be attending, and therefore what holes in the class it still had to fill. The number it admits from the list varies, but last year it was thirty-seven. These were not necessarily the ones who'd originally come closest to admission but those whose traits and skills best balanced the class. This is the main reason for such long waiting lists—to have access to what the dean of another school calls "critical mass," in a variety of categories, to add whatever element a class seems to lack. Men, surprisingly, are a new category: gender ratios at liberal-arts colleges across the country are tipping in favor of women, and some schools have reportedly begun practicing a stealth form of affirmative action that favors male applicants. Like all colleges, Williams then had to allow for "summer melt"—the students who have accepted, enrolled, and paid their deposits, but for a variety of reasons withdraw during the summer; the school took a few more from the list to compensate.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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