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Don't Trust the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal is running a shockingly bad article on the use of the waitlist in the college admissions process. The author, Anjali Athavaley, wants you to believe that "many" top colleges and universities are simply not using their waitlists.

The yields surprised many schools, which had been preparing for more wait-list activity after a couple of years of tight admissions. Though it has always been a long shot to get in off the wait list at many schools, the odds have become worse in the past few years. This year, with applications pouring in, and students applying to multiple schools, admissions officers had anticipated more overlap so they were especially conservative in their yield forecasts. Many increased the number of slots offered on wait lists, expecting to then fill out their enrollment from the bench.

There's good reason not to believe it, and you can start by comparing the number of "manys" used in the article instead of cold, hard numbers.

All told, we get a table of eleven schools and their use of the waitlist in 2006 and 2007. Six experienced no significant change relative to the size of their class, one experienced an increase, and four experienced a decline. But even so, is Stanford or Chicago going from 10 or 15 waitlisted acceptances to 0 really that big of a deal when it represents less than one percent of its incoming class? No. It's pretty common for yield rates to fluctuate by 1-2 percent a year.

The Wall Street Journal article only needs to be one sentence long: "Enrollment management isn't a perfect science." There is no story here.

Consider our own Cornell as an example. According to the Common Dataset, over the last five years, Cornell's use of the waitlist has varied considerably, ranging as high as 209 (2004) and as low as 4 (2003). Last year, Cornell accepted 18 students off the waitlist and ended up over-enrolling by 240 students.

There is no trend here, nor should there be. There will always be a lot of random noise occurring, especially at schools with larger incoming classes to fill.

Ms. Athavaley is trying to turn anecdotes into a trend and make a story out of it. But in the process, she's doing much more: She's helping to contribute to a needless and wasteful nationwide hysteria over college admissions by reporting on a "trend" that may not even exist. Of course, the chattering, bourgeoisie classes that read the WSJ eat this stuff up.

So unless you show me a comprehensive study looking at the use of waitlists at a significant number of schools over a considerable time frame, color me skeptical.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 17, 2007 (#)

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