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Gaming the Selectivity Numbers

As we have discussed, the Admissions department is performing gymnastics to keep our admit rate at a presentable level: ever more students are being accepted via early decision (97% matriculate) and the percentage of legacies in the freshman class has been increased (87% matriculate). By focusing admittances on likely-to-matriculate groups, we can send out fewer acceptances, and our selectivity appears better than it actually is. Despite these efforts, the College’s rate dropped in the past two years (2012: 9.8%: 2013: 10.4%; 2014: 11.5%); Admissions has been obliged to admit more students expressed as a percentage of those who apply. We are now second to last in the Ivies, ahead only of Cornell, which accepted 14% of its applicants last year.

However, life and admissions are more complicated than these figures would have you believe. There is another way that our Admissions department keeps the number of accepted students down and still fills the freshman class. Suppose, just suppose, that fewer people than expected wanted to come to the College this year from among the 2,220 students accepted. What would Admissions do then to fill the class? Of course, Director Maria Laskaris ‘84 would just pull kids off the waitlist. Ta-dah! And best of all, doing so wouldn’t have any affect at all on the selectivity figures laid out above. Hmmm.

Think the situation through a little more. What if Admissions wanted to be be really clever — as we know they have been about early decision and legacy applicants — and Maria decided to accept fewer students in the first place, too few to fill the class, in order to make our selectivity look better? That would be a fine strategy! After all, nobody ever compares the use of the waitlist in the Ivy League. Let’s take a peek now.

All schools report the number of students that they take off the waitlist in their Common Data Set — except Columbia, which does not release its filing. Look at the variable use of the waitlist in admissions over the past three years among Ivy schools (except Columbia — which wouldn’t release waitlist information when I asked the Admissions office directly, too):

Waitlist1.jpg

Interestingly, Harvard and Brown don’t take anyone at all off of their waitlists. All the other Ivies do, with Cornell taking the greatest number and the College coming in second. But wait. We are the smallest Ivy, and Cornell is the largest; it has 3.36 times as many undergraduates as the College. Let’s look at the same numbers as above, but weighted for the size of the freshman class at each school:

Waitlist2.jpg

Golly. We sure pull a lot of people off the waitlist as a percentage of freshmen as compared to our sister Ivies. Far more than anyone else, in fact: over 8% of our freshman class. We’ve done that in each of the past three years. Do I discern a pattern?

‘Twas not always thus. Over the last five years, we’ve taken triple the number of admits off of the waitlist as compared to the previous five years. The folks in Admissions are really working hard to make our selectivity figures look good, aren’t they?

Waitlist 4A.jpg

Next year, if applications drop some more, and we choose not to play games with the waitlist — but instead accept enough students to realistically hope to fill the class — then we will probably have the worst selectivity in the Ivies. Not a very impressive result.

Addendum: Cornell and Dartmouth matriculate an equivalent number of legacies each year: they make up 15% of the freshman class in Ithaca and 14.3% in Hanover. However the College pushes its early admission strategy a lot harder: 43.3% of our freshman class is admitted early vs. 34.16% at Cornell.

Addendum: The only other strategy left to Admissions to improve our rate is to accept kids who won’t get in to any other Ivy. Gary Trudeau had Walden College using this strategy in Doonesbury. Worst class ever?

Addendum: An alert reader writes in to note that while Harvard currently takes no students off of its waitlist, it does use something it calls the Z-list: a kind of delayed waitlist. Each year 30-50 students are told that they are not admittable in the current year, but if they delay the start of their university education by one year, the can come to Harvard at the start of the following academic year. This procedure would serve to slightly improve Harvard’s Ivy-leading 5.9% admit rate. The last time that Harvard accepted students off of its waitlist was in 2006, when 18 students were admitted.

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