Amid all the hype surrounding this year’s record-low acceptance rates in the Ivy League, two things are sure: This is a year unlike any other for college admissions, and no one can predict what is going to happen.
The absence of early programs at Harvard and Princeton universities, a series of financial-aid shake-ups throughout higher education and a record number of applicants have made for a perfect storm of uncertainty. High-school guidance counselors and admissions deans each have their own pet theories — low yield, high yield, high waitlist activity, low waitlist activity — but freely admit that, when it comes down to it, they, too, are in the dark.
“Nobody knows what’s going on,” Jon Reider, college counseling director at San Francisco’s private University High School, said Monday afternoon as high school seniors across the country were logging on to admissions Web sites to find out their decisions. “How could they? We don’t have any track record for this.”
Hedging bets, applicants
All six Ivy League schools that have announced admissions statistics so far have reported record-low acceptance rates, which has fueled the frenzy surrounding this year’s admissions process.
Princeton announced Wednesday that it had offered admission to a record-low 9.25 percent, or 1,976 students, of the 21,369 applicants for the class of 2012. Yale and Harvard admitted 8.3 and 7.1 percent, respectively, of their applicant pools.
Most admissions experts speculate that Yale’s yield — the percentage of admitted students who matriculate, which has been slightly above 70 percent for the past three years — will drop this year because of the absence of Princeton and Harvard as options in the early admissions round.
Many students who would have applied early to one of those schools sent out more applications than they would have otherwise, Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said, meaning that there will be a larger-than-usual overlap in admissions offers.
“Our sense is that yield will go down,” Brenzel said. “But we don’t know by how much, and we could be wrong.”
So Yale’s admissions office, he said, is hedging its bets by accepting 1,892 students, a figure he said, that is higher than the number Yale initially accepted last year — 1,860 — but lower than the number Yale ultimately accepted last year after taking students of the waitlist, 1,911.
This way, Brenzel said, the office can absorb some drop in the yield but, at the same time, minimize the chance that too many students will accept offers of admission, resulting in overcrowding.
But some college guidance counselors dismissed the notion that Yale’s yield will drop this year.
Despite the impact of Harvard and Princeton’s new policies, Yale will be able to hold on to its admits, hypothesized Bruce Bailey, college-counseling director at Seattle’s Lakeside School.
Yale is “too good a school” for yield to drop by more than some statistically irrelevant amount, Bailey said.
Yale also has an advantage over Harvard and Princeton in that its early admits have been imagining themselves at Yale for several months now, said Sandy Bean, coordinator of the college bureau at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. Harvard and Princeton will face an uphill battle convincing these students to drop Yale given that the admissions office has been actively courting them since December, Bean said.
While Yale’s early action program is non-binding, allowing admitted students to matriculate elsewhere, the other Ivies with early admissions options offer binding early decision programs. This means that Yale’s admissions office, unlike the five others with early decision programs, needs to woo its early admits to ensure that they do not sign up with another school.
‘A nice tip of the hat’?
Depending on Yale’s yield, the admissions office could pull many students off this year’s larger-than-usual waitlist of 1,052 students — or, none at all.
Brenzel said the admissions office chose to waitlist so many students in order to have “as wide a selection as possible of talent” to draw from, guarding against the possibility that Yale’s yield will dip. While he anticipates taking students off the waitlist, he said, he has no idea how many will eventually be accepted.
Yale took 50 and 56 students off the waitlist for the classes of 2011 and 2010, respectively. No students were accepted from the waitlist for the class of 2009, and eight were accepted for the class of 2008.
Some college guidance counselors said they think this year’s waitlisted students will most likely have to matriculate elsewhere.
“I think Yale has taken more than enough kids,” Bean said. “I think waitlists are always a nice tip of the hat, to say gee, if we could have accepted more kids, we would have taken you. But I’m telling students a waitlist is just that, and that they’re probably not going to come off it.”
But the absence of Harvard and Princeton in the early pools could start a ripple effect across the rest of the college admissions system, if students accepted early elsewhere choose to attend Harvard or Princeton. These other schools would then turn to their waitlists, causing more schools down the line to lose admitted students, and so on.
Financial-aid packages could also play an enhanced role this year in determining which students matriculate at Yale and other Ivy League schools, said Wade Boggs, a college counselor at the private Westminster Schools in Atlanta. But for students choosing among Yale, Harvard and Princeton in particular, he said, aid will have a more limited effect.
The recent spate of financial-aid initiatives over the past few months has closed the gaps between most Ivy League schools, Boggs said. Now, given that the aid packages in most of the Ivy League are generous across the board, the small differences between them for most students will not be enough to influence a decision either way.
‘Love or backlash?’
Yale’s financial-aid offer made a difference for Daniel Olson, a high school senior at Cranston High School West in Rhode Island, who was accepted regular decision.
Olson, who said he is leaning toward Yale, said the financial-aid packages at Dartmouth College and Williams College “do not come close” to what Yale has offered him.
Besides, Olson said, he fell in love with the residential-college system when he came to visit.
“I was taken by the beauty of the campus, I was taken by the students, I was taken by the number of ways to get involved,” Olson said.
Although this year’s results are still up in the air, some guidance counselors are already projecting years into future — and, according to Reider, the continually decreasing admit rates could result in something of a backlash against the Ivy League.
Reider said he has begun to counsel virtually all of his students against applying to Yale and some of its peers, unless they are “hooked”: in other words, a legacy, a recruited athlete, a targeted minority student or a “development case” — admissions-speak for a student whose parents will donate significantly to the school.
Although Reider said he thinks the admissions office has been making the right calls on who they accept or reject, the enormous volume of applications means that anyone without a “hook” now barely stands a chance.
Some admissions experts have predicted that the numbers of applications to the Ivy League will start to drop as the number of graduating high-school seniors comes down from this year’s peak. But Reider dismissed this notion. The real driver for the rise in applications — the social pressures for students to apply to so many schools — will stay in place, he said, meaning that applications will not be going down any time soon.
Brenzel said students often do not listen to guidance counselors if they discourage them from applying to a place like Yale, perhaps because certain incentives, which have been enhanced by the University’s new financial-aid initiative, make applying worthwhile.
“Even if the odds are long, the outcome is very high-payoff relative to the alternatives,” he said.
Yale received 22,813 applications this year, up 18 percent from last year’s total of 19,323, and accepted 1,892 students.