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"Demonstrated interest" is one of the admissions criteria used by many competitive colleges -- even though it may not have anything to do with an applicant's intelligence or character. The term refers to ways that an applicant shows he or she is serious about enrolling at a given college. An applicant who calls with questions about a particular program is more valued than one who doesn't communicate beyond applying. An applicant who visits shows more demonstrated interest than one who doesn't, and so forth. Many colleges factor in demonstrated interest to admissions and aid decisions, wanting to admit applicants who will enroll. The idea is to have better planning and to improve the yield, the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll.

A new research paper suggests that demonstrated interest has become another way wealthy students have an extra edge -- and recommends that colleges consider policy changes as a result.

Using data from a "highly selective" college (provided on condition that the institution not be identified), the paper finds that colleges are making a logical decision to consider demonstrated interest (it does lead to higher yields). But the study found more. It found that colleges most favor demonstrated interest of the kind that costs money. A student who visits campus, and does so long enough to participate in activities, will gain much more of an edge than an equally qualified student who talks with a college representative at a college fair at her school.

The impact is greatest on those with high SAT scores -- suggesting that many colleges (below the Harvard/Stanford level of competitiveness) are wary of admitting some applicants with high SAT scores and little demonstrated interest for fear of being used as a "safety school."

Those with both high SAT scores (on average wealthier applicants than others) and a campus visit are up to 40 percentage points more likely to be admitted than comparable students without those two "signals," as the paper calls those qualities.

The paper will appear in the journal Contemporary Economics Policy. Its authors are three economists at Lehigh University (James Dearden, Chad Meyerhoefer and Muzhe Yang) and Suhui Li of Mathematica Policy Research.

Data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling show that 16.9 percent of four-year colleges say they view demonstrated interest as having "considerable importance" in admissions decisions, and another 33.3 percent see it as having "moderate imporance." That is far below the emphasis placed on grades, but well above such factors as an interview or work experience.

The paper calls for colleges to subsidize campus visits for low-income applicants -- at least as long as colleges intend to favor those applicants who make the trips. It also says colleges could try to factor in family income when deciding how much weight to give demonstrated interest. But the best approach, it says, is to give everyone the same shot at visiting.

In many cases, a low-income family may not only have difficult affording college trips, but parents may not be able to take time off of work, the paper notes. "For a lower income family, those costly visits to schools are burdensome," said Dearden.

Meyerhoefer said that when he started this research project, he had no idea how influential demonstrated interest has become. He grew up in a rural area without much of the admissions guidance some students receive. He said when he spoke to high school students bound for college while doing the study, he found that many have been told by their counselors to be sure to visit campuses and earn demonstrated interest points, creating an advantage for those (generally from families of means) with counselors in the know. "These students are quite savvy," he said.

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