The Late-Decision Program

Most people have heard of early-decision programs. But there's also a little-known safety net at the other end of the process, to catch those who don't get in anywhere

This past year a senior at a competitive public high school in Massachusetts entered what could be described as the ninth circle of college-application hell: she applied to seven schools and got into none. By conventional measures she seemed like a strong candidate. An aspiring aeronautical engineer, she had a 4.1 weighted grade-point average late in her senior year, took mostly honors or Advanced Placement courses, played the upright bass, played softball and field hockey and ran cross-country, and had reached the regional level in a science competition. Her combined SAT score was 1380. She is also related to a longtime faculty member at the school to which she applied early. But none of these things gave any of the highly selective schools to which she applied—Bowdoin, Colby, Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, Vassar, and Wesleyan—sufficient reason to accept her. Her parents wanted her to go to school in the fall. So she applied again.

For a high school senior, wanting a college and not having one to attend is like being dateless for the prom. It's not that no one wanted to be your date—you just didn't ask the person who did. American colleges and universities collectively have more than enough room for everyone who wants to attend. But the two sides of the process don't always match up perfectly: qualified students find themselves without colleges; excellent schools find themselves with empty seats in the freshman class. The college-application season is usually thought to end in April, when colleges send out their decisions—or at the beginning of May, when students send in commitment deposits. But for some, this time is just the beginning of an underpublicized late-admission process.

The most important tool in this process is something that became available directly to students just a few years ago. Each year between May and August the National Association for College Admission Counseling maintains a space-availability survey—a continually updated list of schools seeking students. As late as this July about 300 schools were still on the list of those looking for fall matriculants. Although NACAC does not keep official statistics on how many people apply late each year, the organization estimates that the number is in the thousands. The survey, which is available free on the Internet, received more than 20,000 unique hits this past year. It is searchable by state, and schools on the list indicate whether they have financial aid or housing still available. (Applying late is considerably harder for students without much capital; very few schools offer financial aid to those who apply after the deadline.)

Not surprisingly, the names on the survey this summer were generally not the nation's most selective schools (that's Wesleyan College, in Macon, Georgia, not the same-named Connecticut university the Massachusetts senior applied to). But the schools still accepting applications did include many strong state schools and new or small private institutions. In July the University of Pittsburgh, for example, had room for a small number of freshmen and transfer students, and also still had a little financial aid and housing available. Randolph-Macon College, in Virginia, was still looking for students, as was Lesley College, in Massachusetts. And although the flagship campuses of big-name state schools often fill up, the other campuses may still be in the hunt for students. This past year, for instance, the University of Massachusetts branches in Boston and Dartmouth and the University of Michigan branches in Flint and Dearborn were all on the list. Religious institutions such as the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., and California Lutheran University, were on the list, as were more-specialized institutions such as the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Maryland College of Art and Design. Even four overseas institutions had responded.

But the NACAC list is not all-encompassing. Some schools don't advertise openings on the survey but admit that they will take a look at a late application if it sounds as though the student is at the higher end of their admissions range. Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one example. Its admissions director, Audrey Smith, says she strives to keep her policies flexible, and that often there's enough shifting around in the entering class for the college to look at two or three late-admission prospects.

In such a situation both sides are under pressure to get results as quickly as possible; it suddenly becomes more acceptable and more productive for a counselor, or even a student, to call up an admissions office and discuss chances. A college counselor can provide thumbnail sketches of students: test scores, grade-point averages, main activities, distinctive traits. The admissions officer can generally tell the counselor whether the college is reviewing late applications—and whether a particular candidate's credentials are in the right ballpark.

An institution's willingness to consider late applications depends on its yield from the regular applicant pool—that is, how many commitments it has extracted from those already admitted. For instance, at Grinnell College, in Iowa, the admissions process this year was unusually competitive, and the yield was high. Jim Sumner, Grinnell's dean of admissions and financial aid, told me in July that he hadn't encouraged any late applications for the fall of 2003. But the previous year the yield was lower, and he was therefore willing to seriously consider late applications.

Grinnell is also part of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, a fourteen-school group including Carleton, Macalester, and the University of Chicago, that has a referral program whereby students denied at one school are invited to apply to another. "It's an attempt to distribute the wealth," Sumner says. About twenty-five students apply through the referral program each year.

In other words, there is a safety net of sorts to catch those who get in nowhere in the spring. But these applicants could also have avoided the situation entirely—by applying to an appropriate safety school. The problem is that most schools—and certainly selective ones—are now receiving more applications than ever before, which makes it somewhat harder to assess which schools may be considered safeties. Counselors at Walt Whitman High School, in Bethesda, Maryland, say that they now advocate Towson University as a safety school for students to whom they would once have recommended the University of Maryland. Scott White, a counselor at Montclair High School, in New Jersey, advises using internal school data to identify potential safeties: some high schools maintain records that show, for example, the average high school GPA for graduates who went on to attend specific colleges. This is "real data," White says, more reliable than the profiles colleges themselves publish, because it places college-specific statistics in the context of the student's own high school. (Of course, an enterprising student from a high school that doesn't keep such records could probably obtain them from colleges themselves.)

When she applied to college, the student from Massachusetts didn't fully understand the intricacies of the college process—in particular, the necessity of applying to a safety school. After receiving the last of her rejection letters, she and her family turned to the Internet and the NACAC space-availability survey, and identified Rutgers and Purdue as possibilities. Within a week of her application to Rutgers she was offered a place in the freshman class.

As the Massachusetts student learned, in the late-admission process the elaborate courting ritual of the admissions office is abandoned, revealing the barest bones of the system. But it's a system that still works, even in the eleventh hour. The memory of spring's rejections is no longer so painful. This past August the student moved to New Jersey and enrolled at Rutgers as part of the class of 2007.