Decoding the Numbers Game

Spring is in the air: crocuses are poking their heads through the ground, hoping to find it snow-free, the sky seems to be a brighter color, and those admissions envelopes have appeared in the mailboxes of the Class of 2016. Across the country, enrollment staff can take a deep breath and admire their (mostly) file-free desktops. Colleges, from the very most selective, to ones more prone to say “yes” than “no”, are boasting about their application numbers for this academic year.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article ( that tries to shed some light on what those numbers really mean. The “record breaking number of applications” has been broken once again. But what does that mean?

  • There has been an increase in the number of applications over the past decade, somewhere around 70% more, but the number of students graduating from high school rose just 5%. Why? Because students are hedging their bets on those ultra selective places and/or trying to get the best financial aid package they can. • Nationally, the acceptance rate at 4-year schools is around 65%. Institutions who boast about admission numbers in the single digits are very much the exception rather than the rule. 
  • Lower acceptance rates may come to backfire. Students who find the application process dauntingly expensive may choose NOT to chase those schools who seemingly take fewer students every year. The odds of a “fat envelope” are too slim to invest in the fees associated with the application. 
  •  More applications from outside a school’s traditional region may not reflect increasing geographic diversity. That depends not on who is admitted, but on who enrolls.
  • The actual number of students who are admitted and actually accept a place in the class is going down. This factor is known in the educational environment as “yield”, and no admissions dean I’ve ever met is about to brag about that declining number. 

As in so many aspects of admissions, numbers and rankings don't tell the whole story.  Increasing applications often reflect enhanced marketing on the part of a school.  Success might be better measured by high yields: the number of admitted students who accept that offer, finding the place that fits them best academically, socially, culturally and financially.  Perhaps we might all be better served by focusing on the number of admitted students who actually enroll, instead of the number whose hope may have been inappropriately directed from the start.