The record number of applications at several of Yale’s peer schools are not only generating headlines — they are causing administrative headaches. And some administrators say the added workload may not result in a higher-quality admit class.
The current admissions cycle has seen a spike in the number of applications to top-tier colleges across the nation. The University of Chicago recorded a 42 percent increase in its applicant pool, while Brown, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania also saw double-digit increases in their application numbers. Among the Ivy League schools that have released their application figures, the only one to see a slight drop in application numbers was Yale.
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While many of these colleges’ administrators said they are pleased with the increased level of interest, the unprecedented number of applications has pushed many admissions offices to their limit. Many administrators have said that the composition of their applicant pool is more important than its size. And despite a slight decrease in applications to Yale this year, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said the quality of this year’s applicants remains high.
“Our goal isn’t to attract more students simply to boost our application numbers,” said James Miller, dean of undergraduate admissions at Brown, which saw its applications soar to around 30,000 this year. “We actually cut back travel and mailings this year and focused our recruitment efforts heavily in areas and high schools with large numbers of first-generation college-going populations.”
With applications at Brown up 20 percent this year, Miller has had to hire outside readers to handle the increased workload. At Duke University, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag said three former part-time admissions officers have been hired to read the college’s record 26,731 applications.
At Stanford, where application numbers for this year topped 32,000, Provost John Etchemendy dismissed the idea that top colleges aim to attract as many applicants as possible. Expanding the pool of unqualified applicants helps no one, and the real goal of admissions offices is to attract a diverse pool of the most qualified candidates in the country, he said. When asked whether he believes applications to Stanford will increase in the coming admissions cycles, he offered no prediction.
“I hope not,” he added.
A surge in college applications and the resulting increases in selectivity are unlikely to benefit top-tier colleges in the annual rankings compiled by the U.S. News & World Report, said Robert Morse, director of data and research.
“There needs to be a 30 to 40 percentage point decrease in a school’s acceptance rate in order to see some movement in its rankings,” he said. “For schools like Yale and Chicago whose admission rate is already under 30 percent, such a change is not mathematically possible.”
Still, attracting a greater number of students has advantages, Morse said. A larger applicant pool may have a better chance of attracting greater socio-economic diversity, a wider range of talent and higher test scores, he said. These benefits depend on the quality of the application pool remaining constant as its size grows, he added.
But there is a risk that larger applicant pools will tend to attract less qualified candidates, Etchemendy said. Brenzel has said the same.
“My general sense is that the number of students at the most competitive end of the spectrum for admission has changed less than the attraction or appeal of putting in an application to see what happens,” he said in September, before this year’s decline in applications was known. “That is, the application base may be swelling, but it isn’t necessarily because you have a lot more students who are at the most highly qualified end of the applicant pool.”
He reiterated Wednesday that the most selective schools already receive three to four times more applications than they can accept.
“It appears extremely implausible that even significant increases in total application counts could result in more than very small increases in the number of highly competitive applicants at any of these five schools,” he said in an e-mail.
Budget cuts have forced many of the nation’s top schools to downsize outreach efforts. Harvard halved its travel budget, Brown stopped printing its largest admissions publication, and Stanford shed 10 percent of its admissions staff, yet all three schools received record number of applications this year.
This year’s numbers reflect a decade-long trend of rising applications to colleges and universities. Administrators at top-tier colleges have said that more generous financial aid offers and increasing fear of ever-lower acceptance rates are the driving factors behind this increase.
“I also think in difficult economic times, families are looking for high-quality educational experiences, and places like ours fit that definition,” Miller said.
Eric Bersin, a senior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., who was deferred from Yale this fall, said he knows peers who have applied to as many as 16 colleges. (Bersin said he applied to nine.)
“Everyone wants security these days,” he said. “And applying to more schools is the only way to get it.”