May 1 used to be my reckoning as a dean of admissions. I knew that if enrollment deposits did not come in the way I hoped, my job and many others' jobs at the college were on the line. Having a waitlist gave me peace of mind and allowed the admissions office to fill the remaining spots available in the freshman class if we were tracking behind on deposits.
But over the years, colleges have expanded the size and use of waitlists, leaving hundreds of thousands of students with a false sense of hope.
As high school seniors come to terms with where they are going or hope to go to college this fall, colleges are swimming in an excess of students on their waitlist with little intention of admitting most of them.
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There are appropriate reasons for a college to waitlist a student. It is supposed to be done for a student whom the college wants to admit but might not have room in the class just yet. These students should be competitive for the college.
And if the college had a larger student body, they would have been admitted. However, over the past several years, waitlists have swelled to the point that the college could fill two or three times the size of the freshman class by the number of students they place on the waitlist.
Worth the wait?
Take, for example, Tulane University. It has a freshman class size of 1,820 students. For last fall, Tulane offered to waitlist 12,813 students (4,486 students accepted to wait). Even if Tulane had a 0% yield rate on admitted students, it would be able to fill its class seven times over with the number of students it offered to place on the waitlist. Yet because Tulane has an aggressive early decision program, it might not need to use the waitlist at all. In fact, last year, Tulane admitted zero students from the waitlist.
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Many ask why colleges would waitlist so many students knowing they could not admit most or any in a given year. The answer is full of complexity. It is part good intentions and part strategic – all at the expense of students. Colleges know that a waitlist decision will likely not result in an acceptance for most students.
In a college's skewed, aloof position, waitlisting a student is a positive message without having to explain the reasons behind it. It can take the sting out of a decision when the students believe they were close to being admitted and possibly still have a shot.
But carelessly stringing thousands of students along well into the summer months is unethical and irresponsible on the part of colleges.
Colleges jockey for status
Colleges will argue that they don't know what their yield rate (the percentage of students who accept a college's offer of admission) will be in a given year. Yet yield rates are often relatively consistent year after year. The truth is that some colleges deliberately use waitlists to control their acceptance rate and increase their yield rate.
Consider Case Western Reserve University. At times, Case Western has filled a significant portion of its freshman class through the waitlist as a way to stay competitive with other elite colleges.
Students accepted from the waitlist are more likely to enroll than a student admitted in early action or regular decision. A college does not have to admit as many students off the waitlist to get them to enroll, and colleges want the lowest acceptance rate possible.
Last year, Case Western admitted 1,076 students from the waitlist for its freshman class of 1,305 – which is 82% of the incoming class.
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Colleges recognize the power they hold in offering admission to a waitlisted student. There is a psychological factor involved when a student is admitted off the waitlist, as students can feel enamored and even pressured to enroll at that college – the school they nearly missed out on.
For many schools, students on their waitlist must confirm their interest immediately and sometimes repeatedly. A Case Western admissions representative told me the school requires waitlisted students to confirm their interest on a weekly basis.
College admissions officers will sometimes formally “pre-qualify” a student on the phone before admitting them from the waitlist to ensure that the student will in fact enroll. Pre-qualification is a strategy colleges use to gauge a student’s interest by contacting them out of the blue and pressuring them to enroll.
Lifting the need-blind curtain
One of the biggest secrets about the waitlist at most colleges, though, is that it favors the wealthy. By the time a college goes to the waitlist, its financial aid budget might be used up and only students who do not apply or qualify for need-based financial aid are considered. For many colleges, this is the reality of need-aware admissions, where the ability to pay is a factor in admitting students.
Yet, finding a college's need-aware policy on its admissions website is about as likely as getting admitted to that college from the waitlist if you need financial aid.
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Even the colleges that boast being need-blind in their evaluation process fall victim to a need-aware process when it comes to the waitlist. I applaud the University of Richmond and Lehigh University for at least admitting that they factor in a student's ability to pay during the waitlist process. Most colleges would never admit this.
When I worked as the associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, a need-blind institution, the office was not forthright about the fact that needing financial aid kept a student from being considered or admitted from the waitlist. Many need-blind universities are not open about their policies when it comes to whom they admit off of the waitlist.
There are long-standing issues of institutional bias, a lack of transparency and self-serving policies that colleges have propagated for decades. The use of the waitlist is just one of many unfair practices used by colleges to stoke interest and applications, and keep hope alive in many more students than they have room to admit and enroll.
Despite an admissions scandal that brought down parents, college officials and an independent college counselor only two years ago, colleges still behave as if they are above the law and immune to the ethics of working with young people. As we emerge from a pandemic that wiped so much hope from our lives, colleges should be leaders in doing what is right by students rather than what is right by them. Hope is rooted in trust, and there is no greater responsibility than colleges being trustworthy to our youth.
Sara Harberson is a former dean of admissions at a liberal arts college and a former Ivy League associate dean of admissions. Her book, "Soundbite: The Admissions Secret that Gets You Into College and Beyond," was published in April. Harberson is the founder of SaraHarberson.com and Application Nation. Follow her on Twitter @saraharberson
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Former admissions officer: College waitlists rigged against students