When the admissions "yield" is miscalculated, colleges can end up with empty classrooms or three people sharing a double room. Yield is the percentage of accepted applicants who enroll, and slight changes can be quite significant to colleges.
Case Western Reserve University saw the yield for this fall's freshman class go up only 4 percentage points -- from 20 to 24 percent. But combined with other changes the university made, that shift will result in a freshman class this fall that (at 1,152 students with deposits paid) is 61 percent larger than last year's (based on the number of deposits in at the same point). Increases of that size are rare at well established universities, but Case's experience indicates some of the circumstances that can lead to such a shift.
University officials are quick to note that they didn't lower standards (the SAT mean of 1347 is slightly higher than last year's figure of 1324). And they aren't giving out more merit aid.
Rather, Case is playing up a curricular innovation and becoming much more ambitious in buying names of potential students from the College Board and analyzing those names.
"We've been doing a lot of things, so it's hard to say that it's any one thing alone," said Christopher Munoz, vice provost for undergraduate enrollment.
But he said that the university has put an emphasis in its admissions materials on a new program called SAGES, for Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship. The program, which will be fully in place for this fall's freshmen, replaces lecture courses in general education with interdisciplinary seminars, all led by professors. All students will take three such seminars in the first two years, followed by a seminar in their major and a "capstone" program for their senior year.
While many colleges have freshman seminars, Munoz said that the Case effort is "distinctive" in the number of seminars offered to every student at a research university.
Besides boasting about its new curriculum, Case has also decided to boast to many more people. In past years, Case has purchased about 100,000 names of SAT-takers from the College Board. This year, it bought 250,000. And it used software from Noel-Levitz, an admissions consulting company, to identify which of those applicants would be most likely to enroll.
Tim Thein, senior vice president at Noel Levitz, said the applicants are primarily examined for high schools attended and neighborhoods that they live in, and that they are then assigned a score of between 0 and 100 on how likely they are to enroll at Case. The university then matches those scores against academic data and decides which potential students to focus on.
Thein said that Case's enrollment growth is extremely unusual.
Munoz said that Case had been planning to try to increase the size of its freshman class to 900, with a goal of eventually reaching 1,000. The university has a new dormitory for upperclassmen opening up this fall, which will free up more beds elsewhere for freshmen. He said that the university would now simply grow more quickly, and that he would probably seek a class of 1,000 next year. Case will be hiring additional faculty members, he added, to make sure that the enrollment boom does not result in larger classes, and to carry out the SAGES program.
George Dehne, an enrollment consultant who has had Case's law school as a client in the past, said he wasn't sure the SAGES program was the key factor for the university. "I've yet to see a general education program that attracts students," he said. "The coin of the realm is the major."
But Dehne said that students do care about small classes, so the seminars may be resonating with students for being seminars, not for their substance.
He also cautioned that universities that have sudden enrollment surges have a challenge in planning for the classes that follow, and then face a potential enrollment drop when the large class leaves. "It's a real mixed blessing," he said. "You have the mongoose in the snake."