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One quick way to tell what kind of year colleges are having as far as the admissions "yield" -- the percentage of accepted applicants who put down deposits -- is to see how forgiving they are of the U.S. Postal Service. Those that are having a good year assume that everything postmarked through May 1 -- the standard date to accept admissions offers -- should have arrived by now. Others are convinced that one more clump of deposits is about to arrive -- and aren't willing to declare numbers final just yet.

Yield tends to be most crucial these days for private colleges that are not in the uppermost stratosphere of endowment and prestige. Many public colleges are bulging and not particularly worried about filling their seats. The Ivies are still the Ivies when it comes to attracting students -- and having generous aid packages to help them out.

But for most private institutions, including many at which admission is highly competitive, this is the make-or-break time when they find out if their incoming class is likely to be consistent with their academic and budget plans for the year. While many of those still waiting on the next postal delivery are likely to be disappointed with their yields and aren't providing details yet, a few trends are emerging among those colleges that are having successful years. Generally, these shifts in thinking about yield go beyond just making sure that accepted applicants have a good experience on a campus visit (although that is of course still part of it and continues to be refined). What are some of the key issues influencing yield this year?

  • More discussion (and strategies) based on the idea that many colleges don't have one yield, but in fact have several, for particular groups of students -- by where they live or the programs that are attracting them.
  • More student interest (and tuition-paying parent interest) in career prospects.
  • More of an emphasis on identifying in the admissions process students who really want to enroll -- and a willingness to reject some outstanding applicants rather than let them reject the college (bringing down the yield).
  • More of an emphasis on attracting groups of students -- whether Latinos from the United States or Chinese students from overseas -- to the application and deposit pool.
  • More of an emphasis on using techniques other than money to attract students to some campuses -- while money is still the favored tool at other campuses (especially those that had an off year last year).

Careers and Cost

Here is how yield is looking at some campuses that are pleased this year.

Misericordia University, in Pennsylvania, has as one of its tools to attract students a billboard that says: "Nursing: the recession-proof career." The message isn't subtle, but it is part of how the institution has been attracting students to its health professions programs, which in the last year went from representing 49 percent of incoming students to 56 percent. Yield is about 35 percent, up 2 points from last year. But Glenn Bozinski, director of admissions, said he's really dealing with a range of different yields because some of his programs can grow and others can't.

In all of the health professions programs, he said, the university is maxed out on clinical spots it can provide in clinics and hospitals for training that is required by various accreditors. He easily could have enrolled 100 freshmen in the physical therapy program based on their academic credentials, but he only admitted toward a target of 66 because that's the number the university can provide with clinical spots. In business (in which student interest is dropping) and liberal arts fields, he said, he could easily admit more students because the university has the faculty members and classrooms it needs -- and doesn't have to find clinical rotations.

Career prospects are a big deal for more students, he said. "We hear parents say, 'I will send my son to a state school for the ubiquity of many majors there. They can get their history degree or psychology degree there.' But you don't hear that with the health sciences."

Across the state, Mike Frantz, vice president of enrollment at Robert Morris University, is also looking at vastly different yields for different programs. For those undecided on majors, the yield this year is 12.5 percent -- up a few percentage points from last year. But in mechanical engineering, the yield is nearly 25 percent. In actuarial sciences, the yield is 36.9 percent.

Over all, the university is thrilled "beyond our wildest dreams" because those numbers for the year -- in which overall yield is 17.6 percent, down less than a point -- come from a much larger applicant pool and more admittances. Applications were up 40 percent. The key, Frantz said, was that the college bought names of prospective students at the beginning of their senior year in high school. In the past, Robert Morris stopped buying new names when students reached their junior year, a common practice, feeling that potential students would be identified by then. "But the vast majority of our new applicants, and many of our new students, came from these pools, whose names aren't being purchased traditionally," he said.

At the University of Vermont -- a public university that, due to its unusually large out-of-state enrollment, has an admissions operation that competes with the privates -- officials noticed the impact of economic uncertainty not by applicants' intended majors but by the differing patterns of those from Vermont and those outside the state (who pay more). Yield is typically higher for those from within Vermont, and that didn't change. But state residents committed very quickly after being admitted, while those from out of state took their time and sent in their deposits only in the final days before the deadline.

Over all, the in-state yield increased to 42 percent from 38 percent, while the out-of-state rate increased to 17 percent from 16 percent.

Christopher Lucier, vice president for enrollment management at Vermont, said he saw a combination of interests in discussions with prospective students and families. "It was a combination of what we were able to do with financial aid packages and the quality of the institution. The issue of value is continuing to emerge," he said.

Based on the higher yields, the university doesn't plan to admit anyone off the waiting list. Last year, it let in more than 300 students that way.

At the City University of New York (which doesn't hold to the May 1 deadline used by private colleges), applications are continuing to go up at such a fast rate that the system has decided that those who don't apply by Friday will be placed on a waiting list -- a first in recent years. Applications are running more than 25 percent ahead of just two years ago.

Judging Applicant Interest

For some years now, many colleges have paid attention not just to the quality of applicants, but to how interested they really seem to be. No one, after all, wants to be treated like a safety school. And so many colleges pay attention to factors such as whether an applicant visits the campus to measure such interest.

This year -- as part of strategies to increase yield -- some colleges are taking that approach to new levels.

Augustana College is looking at a yield of 27 percent this year, up from 23 percent, and part of that is attributed to new ways to measure applicant interest, said W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, communication and planning. The college called the first 1,000 students accepted and ranked them on their interest in the college -- and then focused further recruitment efforts and some extra financial aid on students who seemed truly interested. The college was "more aggressive" on putting applicants on a waiting list or asking for more information if there was some sense that they might not really be interested.

"We continually qualified the pool to focus our resources and be more efficient," he said.

At the University of Rochester, where yield is up by about 2 percentage points, and the discount rate is down a few percentage points, Jonathan Burdick, dean of admissions and financial aid, described the year as "obscenely good" for the institution. And one key was taking a new, hard line with those applicants who weren't interested.

While he doesn't have numbers, he said that the university made a conscious decision to either place on the waiting list or outright reject those students who -- when asked to describe why they are applying -- "spend 15 seconds at midnight to take what they wrote about Tufts and then put our name in it."

Burdick said that it was a matter of "having the confidence to say that we don't care if this kid is 4.0 and has 1500 SATs. We want the students who are interested in us." He said that he suspected some of those rejected are probably "in disbelief" about the decision, but he would rather focus on recruiting those who really want to come.

What are the trends among those who did want to come this year? He noticed -- and can't yet explain -- more students interested in several of the social sciences. Most years, he said, the university ends up admitting three or four students each who say they want to major in anthropology or linguistics. This year, those intended majors are in double digits. Some of the increase, he said, is coming from Chinese students who in the past have tended to want to major only in economics or finance, but are branching out to a range of social sciences. But he said that American students are also a key part of the trend.

Meredith College, a women's college in North Carolina, enrolled its largest freshman class ever last year (477) and expects to end up a little lower than that this year. But it has noticed an increase in international applications (and deposits). Generally colleges are reporting more interest from undergraduate international applicants this year, not just grad students.

The college is also seeing success in efforts to diversify. For the fall class, about 138 applicants (out of 1,553 total) are from Latinas. And while the applicant total over all has been flat, the number of Latina applicants has been rising, from 104 last year and 67 the year before. At a time of concern in Arizona (and at North Carolina's community colleges) about applicants who may not have legal immigration status, Meredith says simply that its totals include documented and undocumented students, and that the college is proud of the outreach that is attracting the students. (As the application numbers have grown, the admit rate has hovered above 60 percent for Latinas, and the yield in the 30-40 percent range.)

Case Western Reserve University is also reporting more success on diversity. While yield is holding steady, with an applicant pool that was 20 percent larger, the commitments to enroll by black, Latino and Native American students are up by 60 percent.

Success With and Without More Aid

One of the big questions facing private colleges and universities is how much aid they need to add to woo students -- especially those who may be considering generous offers elsewhere, or less expensive public institutions.

Some colleges this year are reporting success without engaging in bidding wars -- even as they eye other colleges offering very good packages.

Robert J. Massa, vice president for communications at Lafayette College, said yield is up -- to 29 percent from 27 percent -- while the discount rate is down, to 32 percent from 35.5 percent. So while the college gives generous aid packages, that reflects a yield that was higher among those who weren't offered financial aid than for whose who were offered assistance. Massa credited "beefed up" yield activities and also what seemed a slight uptick in family confidence levels about the economy.

Steven T. Syverson, vice president for enrollment at Lawrence University, said that his institution introduced some modest (generally $2,000-$4,000) awards for applicants interested in certain themes, such as global perspectives, environmental awareness and community engagement. And Lawrence already has a few merit scholarships -- up to a maximum of $15,000. Syverson said he was struck by the number of $25,000-a-year awards applicants were reporting from competing institutions -- especially from others in the Midwest. Syverson said he wasn't sure about the strategy, and how it would work economically or academically (he wasn't impressed by the quality of some of the recipients of these offers).

While refusing to go down that road, Syverson said Lawrence's numbers far exceeded expectations. For the first time in his 27 years at the university, Lawrence "made its class" (meaning it had met its goal for deposits) based on the mail that had arrived by April 30. At this point, the university has 445 deposits, far more than its target of 370 freshmen. That's enough so typical "summer melt" -- when some students get in off of others' waiting lists -- of 20 or so will still leave the college ahead of its plans.

Illinois Wesleyan University is another institution that entered this admission cycle vowing that it would not get in bidding wars -- and that it would not let its 42 percent discount rate grow. Like that of Lawrence, the maximum merit aid it will offer is $15,000. Given that the university's "overlap" colleges (those with many commonly admitted applicants) include public institutions such as the Universities of Illinois and Iowa and Illinois State University, that means that for most students who don't qualify for need-based aid, Illinois Wesleyan can only get to being moderately more expensive than the competition, and can't match.

Tony Bankston, dean of admissions, said that the college's approach this year -- in radical contrast to when he started in admissions 18 years ago -- was to be upfront about cost, but to shift the conversation. It's no longer about saying, "We'll be just as competitive on cost as your other choices," he said. Rather, the line now is "You will most likely pay more to come here, but here is why we think the investment is worth it." He said that the university has stressed personal attention, graduation rates, its spending on undergraduate instruction, and other measures of "value" as opposed to cost.

Currently, Illinois Wesleyan is not only running ahead on deposits compared to this time last year (by 18 percent), but has managed with this approach to attract more minority students and more men. Last year's entering class was nearly 60 percent female -- a gap typical of many liberal arts colleges these days, but one that worries them. This year, the deposits are setting up a class that would be 53 percent female. Bankston said that he thinks the idea of getting away from bidding wars is a sound one and that many families are open to such discussions.

"Most families just don't know how the money works in higher education, that a huge scholarship on the front end may very likely detract from the quality of education they receive on the back end," he said. Colleges should be ready to say that "how a big discount [a student receives] may not be the soundest reason to select a particular college."

Of course, college officials said privately that while they believe in that philosophy, they might be quick to add aid if they had an off year. That's what happened at Yeshiva University last year, when the freshman class size was 14 percent smaller than the previous year, following repeated years of growth. Surveys suggested that many of those who didn't enroll cited financial issues.

The trustees then provided an extra $3 million and the university moved up the timing on when financial aid awards went out to early March -- a month earlier than normal. Yield and class size are expected to be back to normal.

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