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The Key to Understanding Admissions

Updated: Apr 8

by Leigh Moore, college advisor and proud Class of 2021 mom

Note: This is a lengthy post, despite my best efforts at an economy of words. I hope it provides some measure of understanding for those families who are navigating uncharted waters.



The enrollment management principle

For years, people have talked about admissions as a game. It’s not; unfortunately, it’s a business which coincides with the pursuit of dreams, with kids who take personally dynamics beyond their control. None of us likes to mix the ideal of education with the unfair distribution of resources, but that ship sailed about the time college prices surpassed amounts any student could reasonably bear on her own.

As the latest set of application results reach your ears, you may better understand them if you believe something I will call the enrollment management principle:

The job of an admissions staff is not to accept the best students; it is to enroll the next class.

There is a big difference.


What used to be called college admissions gave way to enrollment management a while ago. College admissions implies a meritocratic sifting of prospective students. Enrollment management aims to evaluate students as fairly as possible but also addresses the very competitive marketplace in which colleges struggle to remain solvent.

Two questions At most universities, two questions are the most important when it comes to an applicant’s chances for admission:


#1: Will the student attend if admitted?

The admissions office must thread a very small needle by establishing a target number of incoming students and enrolling a number which is as close to that target as possible. Too few and the budget suffers; too many, and there aren’t enough beds.


On top of the pragmatic concerns, they must contend with reputation-driving statistics. If too many students are admitted who don’t enroll, then both the admissions rate and the yield percentage suffer.


#2: Can we (the university) afford the student?

Some colleges have the luxury of considering students for admission without consideration of their financial status, but most colleges have to keep an eye on it. Lots of kids need financial aid, but colleges can only provide it for the students they most want to enroll. Incoming class members must be willing and able to pay, on average, a certain price. NEED GRAPHIC



from just these eleven colleges, there are now over 61K students in the Class of 2025 who were not admitted to their first choice college and are considering ED2 apps elsewhere. Last year, only 45K students were thus disappointed. I think we must anticipate a trickle-down effect and avoid assuming that any colleges are safe admits without a strong demonstration of interest.


Addressing the big questions: ED and similar application plans

High-commitment application plans (Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action, Single Choice Early Action) have always been powerful cards to play. Committing to attend if enrolled allows admissions to answer at least one of the two questions above. ED/REA/SCEA allows admission to, well, manage the enrollment.

This season, ED has been a tough sell to most of the families I work with because of:


  • General economic uncertainty

  • Individual financial concerns

  • Lack of clarity about what college will look like in Fall 2021, amidst a cacophony of complaints from current college students

  • Confusion about institutional security (“Will College ABC still be here in five years? Even if it will, am I going to be the last person actually paying $75,000/year for my student to attend?”)

  • And—oh yeah—it’s been almost impossible to visit campuses in person for the past nine months.


So, yeah, I get it when families push back on ED. I knew it would be important, but I didn't think many people would bite.


How I was wrong, and why you should care, even if you aren't applying to Harvard

NEED GRAPHIC

Number of students not admitted with high-commitment early applications (Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action, Single Choice Early Action)

With apologies for focusing on a negative stat, I illustrate just the number of students not admitted to these eleven schools--both last year (Class of 2024) and this (2025). It turns out that, when the biggest name brands in higher ed are involved, a lot of people were willing to commit. The most elusive name brands have been early reporters of their data; the eleven colleges included in the chart above are all highly selective universities with the high rankings, hefty financial aid, and favorable outcomes to match. What should we assume about the rest, though--the outstanding universities which don't happen to be at the very top of the food chain? If they don't report their statistics eventually, can we assume they aren't quite as impressive? Probably. But can we assume that it's unnecessary for other applicants to demonstrate interest or consider an ED2 application? Absolutely not. The thrust of all this is the total impact on later application pools From just these eleven colleges, there are now over 61K students in the Class of 2025 who were not admitted to their first choice college and are considering ED2 apps elsewhere. Last year, only 45K students were thus disappointed. I think we must anticipate a trickle-down effect and avoid assuming that any colleges are safe admits without a strong demonstration of interest.


Beyond ED and other high-commitment applications: what’s a deferral?

Some students applied under a binding Early Decision plan and are deferred, meaning that they aren’t admitted but will be reviewed again during regular decision review. Other students are deferred admission because of particular weaknesses on their academic records which need to be addressed. Most of the confusion in the air this time of year concerns a different kind of deferred student entirely—the outstanding students whose non-binding, non-restrictive early applications are deferred. Selective colleges often defer some of their most qualified applicants as a way to take their temperature. Here’s a direct quote from the Tulane admissions blog: “Many times, we defer students who are academically qualified to be admitted, but we are unsure of their interest level.” Deferred Tulane applicants with a strong desire to attend Tulane would be wise to communicate the same.


Deferred or not, how to navigate the road ahead

First, remember that we are here and are glad to help you sort this out. Generally speaking, though, if you * have a favorite school which * you can afford, per use of the institution’s net price calculator, and * you think it’s a good idea to attend, you should make sure the admissions office knows you will attend if enrolled. How you do that is a function of the specific situation. Most people reading this will not be able to check the box next to all those “ifs,” and that is completely fine. I don’t advocate the use of ED simply to beat admissions odds, and I’m a fairly big believer that the more we try to control admissions, the more it controls us. We just want you to know how it works. Everybody deserves to know the rules, unwritten or otherwise.




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