College admissions, and admissions yields

Now that the college acceptances are arriving, it's time for another post in my occasional series about the numbers in the college application process. Previous posts, about the college admissions landscape generally and the early application process, are available here and here.

The college application process, grueling as it is for students and their parents, is a two-step process. (Economists call it a two-player game, where neither side has complete information. Here's a link to an academic paper, "Student Portfolios and the College Admissions Problem" if you want to know more.) Students have to choose which colleges to apply to, whether to apply early, and then, once the applications are done, they have to wait. But once the colleges have notified applicants of their admissions decisions, they in turn have to wait and see which accepted students will accept them. (The number of accepted students enrolling is the 'yield' element in the college rankings.) The switch from seller’s market to buyer’s market is unsettling for parents and students. It’s even harder for the colleges: if they have guessed wrong - and the students they have admitted decide to go somewhere else - their yield numbers will decline, as might their selectivity numbers. (I will take up the issue of college rankings, again, in a later post.)

Consider Macalester College. It's a small liberal-arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota. From 2007 through 2010, the number of applications stayed fairly steady, floating around an average of about 4750 applications. In 2011, the number increased by over 40%, to more than 6100 applications. This increase generated a fair amount of commentary, eg, in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, but nobody was quite sure what had happened. But colleges have to pick the right students from among their applicants. Over the four years from 2007 to 2010, Macalester had done just that, and the number of admitted students who enrolled increased steadily. As a concomitant, Macalester admitted no students from its waitlist in 2009 and 2010. But something happened last spring. Macalester admitted more students who decided not to attend than usual, and the number of accepted students who enrolled declined sharply. Of the 196 students who accepted a place on the waitlist, 196 were admitted. (Source: Macalester Common Data set, 2007-2010)

Is this really a surprise? It probably shouldn't have been. Academic work suggests that joining the common application will increase applications and decreases yield. (You can get the relevant paper as a pdf from the National Bureau of Economic Research here.) Is there a lesson? I would draw two: context matters. I've said this before - but the short version is, don't get too excited about year to year changes. And, for parents of kids getting ready to apply for college, take a step back. Think hard about what's happened over the last couple of years at the school. Don't depend too much on a college's yield to tell you much, if anything, about the quality of the school. Whether the school is a good match for the student is much more important than the yield.

I will be away for the next week, but check back next week for more posts, including more about strategic planning from guest blogger Marta Siberio.

No comments:

Popular Posts