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Once upon a time, an admissions dean friend of mine told me that he had figured out the perfect admissions strategy. He was going to place every single applicant on a wait list and then admit the first who responded that he or she wanted to attend.

He was speaking with tongue firmly in cheek, although he was at an institution popular enough that he could have gotten away with it. In retrospect I realize he was brilliant -- and prescient. At a time when college admission had not yet morphed into enrollment management and when yield and admit rate had not yet become the golden calves of selective admission, he was ahead of his time. If only his sense of showmanship had matched his entrepreneurial drive, he might very well have developed the first reality show devoted to college admission.

I thought about that “modest proposal,” seemingly inspired by Swift (either Jonathan or Tom Jr.), several weeks ago when there was a discussion on the Listserv of the National Association for College Admission Counseling about whether colleges put too many students on wait lists rather than denying them outright.

The fault lines in the debate broke cleanly according to which side of the desk you occupy. The secondary and independent counselors who weighed in argued that large wait lists are cruel and encourage students to cling to false hope, while the admissions side of the profession argued that wait lists are an essential tool in an enrollment landscape that is anything but predictable.

It certainly feels like more of my students are being wait-listed than ever before. This year I have seen a couple of public institutions change their use of wait list exponentially. I have been told that one that in the past has used a wait list minimally has this year put 7,000 applicants on the wait list, perhaps aligned with an institutional goal to lower its admit rate from 70 percent to 50 percent. Another university that wait-listed far more students than I ever remember before began admitting students off the wait list last week.

So are bigger wait lists necessary, cruel or both? Has the use of wait lists in college admission changed fundamentally, and have our messages about wait lists kept up with the changes? How should we advise students who find themselves on a wait list and hope to get off?

The increase in the number of students placed on wait lists is a product of the vicious circle that college admission finds itself stuck in. This is the time of year when there will be stories in the media about this being the most competitive college admissions year in history. To the degree that is true, it is true for a very small cohort of institutions, but those institutions receive the bulk of public attention given to the college admissions process, and as a result they tend to drive the narrative.

The consequence of stories about college admission being tougher is that it is more difficult for students, parents and college counselors to know what is realistic. That leads students to apply to more colleges to hedge their bets. The increase in number of applications per student means that colleges find it harder to determine when an application is serious, and they respond by increasing the number of students placed on wait lists. That starts the cycle all over again.

For colleges wait lists are an insurance policy and an important tool for managing enrollment. Colleges can’t overenroll (lack of housing) or underenroll (lack of revenue), and using a wait list allows a college to hit its freshman class enrollment target precisely.

During my career I have seen lists become a regular phase of the admissions process, and in most years I would expect 10 to 15 percent of my seniors to end up at their final college choice after having been admitted off the wait list. At one time going to the wait list was a consequence of an enrollment shortfall after May 1, but I am seeing more institutions where using the wait list is an intentional part of their enrollment strategy. What I find most distasteful is colleges that use the wait list as a kind of “early decision 3,” enrolling 10 to 20 percent of the class off the wait list to keep their admit rate low and their yield high.

So what is the Goldilocks size for a wait list, not too big and not too small? I’m not sure I have the answer to that question. Having more students wait-listed than admitted seems excessive, but I hear from my admission colleagues that a wait list is dynamic, that there is erosion in the number of candidates willing to wait for an offer with every day that passes, especially after May 1.

I am also sympathetic to the fact that wait lists have a trickle-down effect. When one institution chooses to use its wait list, there is collateral damage on a number of other colleges. Given that reality, should we think of wait list usage as a kind of poaching, even though students are willing participants?

For a student being on a wait list is like being in admission limbo. Colleges use wait lists based on their own needs, and in most cases don’t admit students off the wait list until after May 1, meaning that the student must put down a deposit at another school without knowing whether the wait list will come through. Colleges also use wait lists to sculpt the freshman class. If there is a shortage of out-of-state women, they may admit only out-of-state women off the wait list. Students needing financial aid may be out of luck.

It may be hard to figure out exactly what being on a wait list means. Some students on the wait list just missed being admitted, while other just missed being rejected. So is the message “We want you but don’t have room” or “We don’t want you but might have to admit you anyway”? It would be helpful to students and counselors if colleges were transparent about how many students were offered a place on the wait list in each of the past five years, how many accepted the offer and how many were admitted. The past may not predict the future, but it’s nevertheless useful information.

Parents of students on wait lists often want to know where a student ranks on the list. In my experience the ranked wait list is a myth (if any place is till practicing that, I’d love to know). I find level of interest to be a bigger factor when colleges use wait lists, as they want to enroll students they know will come. I advise students to be their own advocates, communicating interest and updating information.

So are wait lists too big? That’s the wrong question. Would colleges wait-list as many students if wait lists counted differently toward ranking metrics like admit rate than denials? They are not the same decision, so why should they count the same?

And are they cruel? That depends on your perspective. I think my students would rather have the door cracked open than closed altogether. The 1970s British rocker Nick Lowe sang that “You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure.” When it comes to wait lists, finding the right measure is the key.

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