The Wait List Generation

Art & Science Group finds 20 percent of students this year are on waiting lists, and they still have hopes of getting in. The figure is 29 percent for minority students.

April 26, 2021
 
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Waiting lists are the great fear of applicants this year. With more students than ever applying to highly competitive colleges, many institutions are lengthening their already long lists.

Art & Science Group, a consulting firm that advises colleges on their admissions strategies, conducted a survey of high school seniors now -- when they know what the colleges they applied to have said, but before the students have told the colleges that admitted them if they will enroll. The findings of the survey of 1,132 high school seniors:

  • A total of 20 percent of the students were on at least one waiting list.
  • Minority students were more likely than white students to be on a waiting list (29 percent versus 18 percent for white students).
  • Men (29 percent) were more likely than women (16 percent) to be on waiting lists.
  • More students from higher-income (32 percent) than middle- and lower-income groups (18 percent and 19 percent) were on waiting lists.
  • Forty percent of students who reported being wait-listed said they would attend the college that wait-listed them over their current first choice if they were offered admission from the waiting list.

First a note on the Art & Science students. They were interviewed between March 31 and April 16. The sample is not a pure national sample, but a sample of the population that is planning to go to a four-year college. The respondents were three-fifths female and two-thirds white. They reported an average household income of around $100,000, higher than the average income of Americans; about 90 percent attend a public high school.

David Strauss, a principal at Art & Science, said in an interview that several things stood out in the data. First, he was stunned that the minority students were being wait-listed at a higher rate that white applicants. He said colleges clearly have the option of diversifying their student bodies and asked why they aren't. Many minority students (and many others) are applying to the most competitive colleges this year when they are test optional for the first time.

And that leads to the finding that 40 percent of those on a waiting list would accept an offer if extended. At many colleges, typically, few students remain on the waiting list. They tend to prefer to get excited about a college that had admitted them. And they know that at most competitive colleges, relatively few (if any) students are admitted that way.

This leads to another finding: 10 percent of respondents report that they are likely to apply to additional colleges for admission in the fall, and another 10 percent are uncertain if they’ll submit additional applications. The headline on Art & Science's report is "Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over." And this figure -- which is unusual for high school seniors seeking to attend a four-year college at this point in the year -- shows why.

And then there is a final point in the survey: students are applying to top colleges.

"'Reach' schools this year are stratospheric," the report on the data says. "Two out of five students applying to a reach school named an institution ranked among U.S. News & World Report Top 25 National Universities (and three out of five cited one in the top 50). Two-fifths of 4-year college-bound respondents reported applying to a school that they consider to be a reach school: two-fifths of these because test scores were not required; and another quarter because they thought they’d have a better chance of getting in" this year than in normal years.

The report says this relates to the high number of students who are on waiting lists. "As more students apply to schools that they would normally consider out of reach, more are likely to find themselves on waitlists at their dream schools and consequently more than usually inclined to be willing to make a change if they have the chance."

The report stressed that all colleges -- including those that don't have record applicants and waiting lists -- should be paying attention. "While the top universities appear to have a significant demand going into the home stretch for fall 2021, institutions in tiers immediately below may face greater uncertainty in the face of a pandemic that remains unpredictable in its impact on college campuses," the report says. "If schools higher in the pecking order admit substantial numbers of students from their waitlists, schools further down could be more adversely affected."

For another perspective on the year in admissions, read this article on colleges that are still accepting applications for this year.

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