NEW ORLEANS -- Admissions counselors are tired of waiting.
The message was clear here at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling -- colleges' wait-list practices have become an issue of concern for many high school counselors. One session focused on the issue, and NACAC's Assembly voted for a formal study.
The main concern among counselors was the lack of transparency surrounding how institutions manage their lists and why they operate them as they do. While most of the admissions process is governed by fairly clear rules laid out by the association, there are few rules governing the time between May 1 and August 1. Counselors said they have noticed a trend of more students are getting put on wait lists every year, and many said they hear horror stories about students being blind-sided with quick deadlines or inadequate aid offers months after they gave up hope of getting into their preferred institutions.
"Wait lists are becoming the Wild West of the admissions process," said John Talmage, director of college counseling at St. Paul's School in Maryland, who brought the resolution to the association Saturday. "There are basically no rules there."
Wait lists -- where institutions do not immediately deny a student admission but defer the decision until other students have either accepted or declined admission -- have become more prominent in recent years, admissions officials said. According to NACAC’s annual admissions trends survey, 39 percent of colleges responding to the survey reported using wait lists in 2009. Of those, 47 percent reported increases from the year before, and 51 percent reported increases in the number of students admitted off wait lists.
Tom Weede, vice president for enrollment management at Butler University and chair of NACAC’s admissions practices committee, said his committee fields few complaints about wait lists. He did note that the committee has seen an uptick in the number of complaints as the number of applications each college receives has gone up and yields have gone down. “It’s getting harder and harder to know what yield will be,” he said in an interview Monday.
The association's Statement of Principles of Good Practice  lays out few rules regarding what institutions are allowed to do when forming a wait list or offering students acceptance off one. There are no rules or best practices governing the size of wait lists or how long students should be given to make a decision. Weede said the outcome of Talmage's proposal could be new recommendations.
Talmage said he was motivated to bring forward the resolution after an incident involving one of the students he counseled. The student was placed on the wait list at his first-choice institution and told in May that the university would no longer accept anyone from the wait list. He accepted an offer from another institution only to get a call from his first choice at 9:30 a.m. one day in June, telling him he had until noon to make a decision.
"There needs to be more transparency and a discussion about whether we need more rules to protect students," Talmage said in an interview Monday.
Stories like Talmage's regularly circulate in admissions circles, mostly because so little is known about the process, said Phil Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota, who organized the discussion session at NACAC's meeting.
"My sense is that the wait list is one of the least-studied -- and perhaps least-analyzed -- parts of the college-admissions process," Trout said in the opening remarks to his session Friday. “Within my group of colleagues on the secondary side, I have friends who are experts at athletic recruitment, writing a winning essay, advising the undocumented student, and getting into an Ivy League school. But I don’t have a colleague who is ‘the wait list guy.’ “
Sometimes the stories involve institutions pumping up their yield numbers by placing a large number of students on wait lists and then only selecting students they know will enroll. Other times they revolve around need-blind institutions no longer ignoring need once they start pulling from the wait list.
Still others involve students like Talmage's who are given very little time to make a decision, or students who are admitted off several wait lists in succession, losing enrollment deposits at each successive institution.
But no matter the story, a common theme exists, Trout said. "Wait lists exist only to fill the needs of the institution," he said in an interview Monday.
For his session Friday, Trout asked four institutions -- the University of Notre Dame, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Grinnell College, and Texas Christian University -- to supply data  about and discuss how they use wait lists.
The number of students offered spots on wait lists ranged from 500 to almost 3,600, and the number offered admission ranged from 140 to 0.
Institutions that use wait lists said they help control for disruptions in the student market that could hurt an institution's bottom line. “It’s a process of managing uncertainty in an uncertain field,” said Seth Allen, dean of admission and financial aid at Pomona College.
Butler University provides a good example. The institution saw applications increase 41 percent this year -- likely due to the performance of its men's basketball team in the NCAA tournament, where it reached the finals for two consecutive years -- along with an increase in student quality, Weede said. The institution saw a significantly lower yield than it had in previous years, and ended up offering admission to 650 members of its 720-person wait-list.
Other times only a small number of students are actually offered admission off a wait list. In 2011, the University of Notre Dame placed 1,905 students on its wait list -- 1,632 of whom chose to remain on the list – and only accepted seven students off the list. None of the 3,600 students offered a spot on the wait list at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2010 received offers of admission.
The size of some wait lists is a major issue for some counselors, who say they are unnecessarily large and mislead students. "In a 3-year window, if an institution's been averaging 10 to 100 students enrolled from the wait list, and they make 5,000 [wait list] positions available, it just can't possibly be a realistic scenario that the sky will be falling that bad," Trout said.
Trout and others said the institutions are concerned with other metrics rather than just the bottom line, such as the diversity of the class, whether students are falling into the right majors, and whether wait-listed students can help the institution meet its bottom line.
Trout said the process is unfair to students, particularly those who apply for early action, have the decision deferred, and are then given a spot on a wait list. Those students have been emotionally tied to that institution for almost a year by the time the process is over, and may never be offered admission.