Colleges Use Rejections to Raise Rankings

College Rankings

“Aura of Selectivity”

The Wall Street Journal’s “Colleges Rise as They Reject” explores the efforts of colleges’ across the U.S. to encourage as many high school students as possible to apply to their institution. Of particular interest are those prospective applicants who will improve geographic diversity (they make the school look good) and who come from wealthier families (they require less financial aid).

How are schools enticing high school students? They are reducing application fees, sending out personalized letters to high school students, visiting more high schools (especially those out-of-state), encouraging more on-campus visits, using third-party firms, and buying names from databases, among other measures. With an increased application pool, these schools are enjoying lower acceptance rates that create an aura of selectivity and exclusivity. Oh yes, and higher rankings.

For students, this muss and fuss means that getting into college will be even harder. Because of increased selectivity, applicants feel that they must apply to more schools. Last year, 5% of applicants applied to 12 or more colleges; in 1997 only 1% of applicants applied to that many.

There’s another reason why schools are broadening their search for applicants other than rankings: demographics. Admissions offices do not want to suffer from the decline of potential students “in the pipeline.” For the high school class of 2014, for example, only 3.2 million students are expected to graduate, 4.5% fewer than the class of 2008.

My Take

While The Wall Street Journal is on the money in terms of what’s motivating this recruiting barrage, the impact of the blitz is more interesting to me than the motivation. At the same time that they embrace the Common App and decry the increasing stress of the college application process, colleges are contributing to the frenzy through their marketing. Now I can understand why admissions offices are concerned about application numbers in total and relative to their competition. Heads roll when those numbers go down. It’s simply in their interest to keep those numbers up.

The prudent applicant and parents have to hedge their bets as the admissions dog chases its numerical tail. If class size is held constant, higher application numbers mean a school is perceived as more selective and “better.” Rankings go up. Deans and alumni are happy. Applicants feel compelled to apply to more schools. Schools have larger waitlists to protect against “low yield,” which has declined over the last ten years, and “melt.” And the whole process gets zanier and zanier.

Yes. Application to college and graduate school is arduous. The internet and electronic applications were supposed to make it easier, but instead the ease of communication and application is used by schools to inflate application numbers and rankings – and by prospective students to reduce the risk of rejection. Instead of being a process where applicants and schools attempt to match, I’m sorry to say, they both attempt to game.

Linda Abraham By , president and founder of and co-author of the new, definitive book on MBA admissions, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.

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