IvyWise in the News
Colleges grow their waitlists, leaving more students in limbo By Bonnie Miller Rubin
April 23, 2012
After months in limbo, Morgan Lundblad recently opened her long-awaited email from Harvard University to find only more uncertainty. She had been wait-listed.
The senior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School had applied to a dozen of the nation's most elite colleges. When the smoke cleared, Lundblad still did not have a definitive path forward. Of the schools where she was accepted, she narrowed her choices to the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania. Still, she can't quite let go of Harvard, which had a record-low 5.9 percent acceptance rate for next fall. She may not know her fate until midsummer.
"It's not really a rejection, but it kind of is," she said. "It just doesn't help you too much. I need to make a decision."
While no one tracks the number of college applicants nationwide who are wait-listed, admissions experts and high school guidance counselors agree that the ranks have swelled in the last five years. That leaves more students consigned to the halfway house of admissions, where they are unable to celebrate an admission or mourn a denial.
The number of schools using waitlists is on the rise, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. In 2010, 48 percent of colleges reported using a waitlist, up from 39 percent in 2009 and 35 percent in 2008. At the same time, the number of students plucked from standby decreased, from 34 percent to 28 percent.
The trend is driven by the lingering economic downturn, along with the unpredictability of the admissions process, experts said. Many schools are seeing more and more applicants as seniors cast a wider net, applying to more institutions to hedge their bets.
Also, the recession has interjected its own volatility to the match game. Over the summer, a parent can get laid off or reassess skyrocketing tuition costs in tough times, triggering a last-minute shift from private school to State U.
As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for admissions officers to predict who actually will show up in the fall, so schools have countered with an insurance policy: a larger reserve pool to manage their enrollment, officials say.
"It's become a pingpong game that both sides play with each other," said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "And it's totally gotten out of hand."
The end result is that many are left dangling.
"It's insane. ... This year has been the absolute worst, with more kids on the waitlist than ever," said Laura Docherty, college counselor at Fenwick High School in Oak Park. "It's just painful ... and it really drags out the process."
Because many institutions closely guard their waitlist numbers, cracking the code of how many eventually get a coveted fat envelope is a subject of intense speculation on online message boards. Some schools declined to provide data to the Tribune, but statistics could be gleaned from college websites and other sources.
Locally, the University of Chicago's waitlist grew from 1,033 in 2009 to about 3,000 in 2012, the school said. The school's newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, reported the waitlist had about 500 names in 2003.
Northwestern University's waitlist shrunk from about 3,500 last year to 2,857 for 2012. Still, this year's waitlist is about 1,300 names longer than six years ago, school officials said.
The waitlist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology fluctuated between roughly 450 and 740 from 2007-10, then it shot up to 1,000 in 2011. Waitlists grew at some smaller schools as well. Grinnell College in Iowa said its roster rose to 1,189 in 2012 from 541 last year. Bates College in Maine has not yet released its most recent data, but the waitlist increased from 871 in 2010 to 1,305 in 2011.
How many backups will be admitted varies from year to year, school officials said. Although it's tempting to cling to a fantasy, most experts suggest applicants should regard their limbo status with a hefty dose of realism.
At Vanderbilt University, for example, 9.4 percent from the waitlist were accepted – a number that has held steady for the last four years. Last year, MIT plucked only 26 students for acceptance from its reserve pool of 1,000.
Northwestern said it admitted no one from its waitlist in 2011. The year before, it accepted just 21 of 3,204.
Said Nassirian: "I tell them to think of a waitlist as a 'no.'"
One of Docherty's Fenwick students in the grip of prolonged uncertainty is Kendall Livingston. The senior applied to seven institutions and was rejected by five and wait-listed at Baylor and Wisconsin, leaving her scrambling.
"The entire ride has been one of shock and disappointment," said Livingston, who has an A average and strong test scores.
She's applying to a few more schools and mulling the possibility of taking a year off. A decade ago, Livingston would have been a solid "yes" rather than strung along, said Docherty, who is also president of the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling. "I tell parents this is just like gambling."
For Susan Lee, the application process has been equally perplexing. The Glenbard North senior ranked sixth out of 680 in her class, scored a 35 on her ACT and participated in a hefty log of activities, including four years in student council.
Even so, of the 10 schools where she applied, she was turned down by four, wait-listed by four (Duke University, the U. of C., Penn and Northwestern) and accepted by two (Boston College and New York University).
"After so much hard work, I felt like the floor was just ripped out from under my feet. All I could think was, 'What did I do wrong?'"
Their experiences help illuminate one of the factors driving this complex dance. According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, the number of college applicants who applied to seven or more schools has risen steadily during the last 20 years, reaching 25 percent in 2010, the most recent year available. In 2000, the number was 13 percent. In 1991 it was 8 percent.
Independent college consultant Katherine Cohen advises students to apply to 10 to 15 schools, although some clients have applied to more than 20, she said.
Northwestern has seen its number of applicants rise steadily from about 18,000 in 2006 to 32,000 for 2012. During the same time, the U. of C.'s applications have risen from about 9,500 to more than 25,000.
The spike in applications helps explain the need for a hefty reserve, said Grinnell admissions director Doug Badger. "It's just hard to know. ... These kids have a lot of other options, and by the time we reach out to them, they'll have decided to go elsewhere."
The increasing reliance on the waitlist is sparking more conversation in admission circles, said Michael Mills, associate provost for enrollment at Northwestern.
"There's self-policing in admissions, and schools that hang on to kids the longest pay a reputational price among their peers," Mills explained.
College administrators say they aren't giving false hope but just trying to be responsible stewards and hit their target enrollment projections.
And finally, the waitlist softens the blow – especially valuable when the applicant is the offspring of alumni or generous donors.
"Politically, it's just a lot easier than an outright denial," said Jerry Pope, the college adviser at Niles North and Niles West high schools, who previously worked in admissions for St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and Illinois Wesleyan University.
And despite the daunting odds, some with this indeterminate status do get the nod. Evan Cudworth of the U. of C.'s admissions office said 15 wait-listed students had their ticket punched this month to Hyde Park.
In Lundblad's case, she is already moving toward plan B, with visits to both Berkeley and Penn. Yet, she concedes, it would be hard to say no if Harvard beckoned.
Rico Scott, a 2011 Homewood-Flossmoor graduate, understands. A year ago, he had his future mapped out, starting with the U.S. Naval Academy. Instead, he ended up on the waitlist and went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he is thriving.
"I feel very lucky to be in the position I'm in," he said. "I discovered that there are always multiple routes to get to your destination."
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