High school seniors across the country had reason to smile last week when Yale announced that 9.7 percent fewer students applied to become part of the Class of 2011 than had applied the year before. Last year, a record 21,101 students applied, but this year only 19,060 applications wended their way to New Haven.
Yale is, as usual, still selective, and our admissions officers will, as usual, be able to boast of choosing between thousands of students with 2400 SAT scores, 4.0 GPAs, who served as class president, and still had time to found a soup kitchen and captain a varsity sports team. The quality of the class of 2011 will not be compromised by the fact that 2,000 fewer students will get thin envelopes in April.
Finding a definitive explanation for the drop is likely impossible, and Yale’s administrators have proposed plausible but inconclusive explanations for the decline. The crux of the matter, however, is whether students did not apply because they do not want to go to Yale, or because they did not think they could get into Yale. We do not believe it is the former — Yale’s academic and extracurricular offerings have not declined since last year’s record-setting number of applications — and, at first glance, the latter explanation would seem to make this year’s decline irrevelant, provided that it is the weakest applicants who did not apply.
The danger is that those who did not apply might not be the weakest applicants. Although some were undoubtedly students from prep schools whose advisers told them they were unlikely to be accepted, others could well have been students from large public schools who were intimidated by last year’s 8.6 percent acceptance rate and who did not have guidance counselors to instill in them confidence or help them prepare an application accentuating their strengths. Or, equally likely, some of those 2,000 lost applicants were students who might need financial aid and who applied to schools with more generous financial aid offerings, or non-Ivy schools that award merit scholarships.
While there is not much Yale can, or should, do to reduce its hyperselectivity, Yale can, and should, seek to market itself in a way that does not trump hyperselectivity as an advantageous feature of our university. The makers of the U.S. News and World Report rankings aside, no one values a school because of how many people do not get to go there. Yale already enjoys whatever benefits accrue from a reputation of elitism, and there’s no need to press that matter any farther. Rather, Yale should emphasize that just as a 4.0 GPA and 2400 SAT score do not guarantee admission, neither do a 3.8 GPA and 2200 SAT score automatically disqualify someone. Putting together a meaningfully diverse class entails finding students with a range of talents, and Yale would lose something if it were unable to pick a variety of students for Old Campus residency.
But, in perspective, this 10 percent decline is likely irrelevant when one considers the overall value of a Yale diploma. As the News wrote when administrators announced a decline in early applicants, Yale is a selective school because we are a good school; we are not a good school because we are selective. And, in our opinion, Yale is still quite a good school indeed.