DENVER -- For an applicant on the waiting list for her first choice college, a call telling her that she has been accepted could be a dream come true. Or it could leave her and her family vulnerable to making an important decision without enough time, money or information.
In debates here at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, those two perspectives were cited, as officials considered just what constitutes ethical practice in dealing with a growing population of college applicants who land on a waitlist. The association's Assembly voted to urge colleges to give applicants accepted off the waitlist at least 72 hours to decide whether to accept the offer. But the association's leaders couldn't agree on whether such applicants (if they applied for financial aid) are entitled to the kind of award letter those accepted initially receive. NACAC's best practices (unlike a list of mandatory rules) are not enforced, but are considered influential with colleges setting admissions policies.
And the Assembly appeared divided between two groups. On one side were many high school counselors, who say that colleges are taking advantage of applicants on the waitlist, sometimes giving them only hours to decide whether to accept an offer, without providing details on financial aid.
On the other side were many college admissions officers, who say that the reason they work through waiting lists quickly is to help those further down on the list, who remain in admissions purgatory while those on the top of the list decide whether to accept an offer. And college officials say that there are many practical issues that may prevent them from providing a full aid award letter.
What both sides agreed on -- and new research from NACAC confirmed -- was that more colleges are using waitlists, and placing more applicants on them. After high school guidance counselors complained at last year's annual meeting  about how their students were being treated, NACAC started work on a study it released here at this year's meeting. Among the findings:
- Nearly 45 percent of four-year colleges and universities now use waiting lists, up from 32 percent in 2002.
- A majority of colleges with wait lists have reported, every year since 2000, that they are placing as many applicants on the waitlist as they did the year before, or placing more of them on the waiting list.
- On average between 2007 and 2010, colleges admitted less than one-third of the applicants they placed on waitlists.
- The most selective colleges tend to place a larger proportion of applicants on waitlists, but tend to admit a smaller proportion of wait-listed applicants than do other institutions.
- The ability of applicants to pay for college is considered by only 16 percent of colleges when deciding to place someone on the waitlist, but is considered as a factor by 38 percent of colleges when deciding whom to admit off of the waitlist.
NACAC’s Admissions Practices Committee, which reviewed the report, found that problems with waitlists do "not appear to affect many students," Thomas Weede, chair of the committee and vice president for enrollment management at Butler University, told the Assembly. But Weede said that the committee was told about concerns over some cases in which students were being admitted off of waiting lists by receiving a phone call and being told that they had only a few hours to decide on the admissions offer, not the few weeks or more that they would have received if accepted earlier in the process.
Weede said that the committee believed that such pressure was unfair, and that NACAC should adopt as a "best practice" that colleges offer at least 24 hours to respond to an offer, and that the offer include information on the availability of financial aid and housing, if such availability is in any way different for those admitted off the waiting list and those admitted regularly. (Currently, the association's document on best practices does not offer guidance on the timing of responses to waitlist admissions offers.) There followed a debate in which high school counselors pushed with success to get the 24 hours changed to 72 hours, but in which they received only a promise of further study on a request that those who receive admissions offers off of waitlists also receive a formal financial aid offer at the time of admission.
On both the time minimum and the aid offer, college admissions officers gave a variety of reasons for not changing the proposal. Admissions officers said that they were under pressure to fill classes, that they needed to reach those further down on the waiting list if those first offered a spot turned them down, that not everyone on the waiting list correctly filled out financial aid forms or applied for aid, and so forth. One admissions counselor noted (to some applause from other admissions officers) that "there are other students on the waiting list. They are waiting."
Weede said the Admissions Practices Committee had considered a longer time period than 24 hours and rejected the idea as not practical. He said that "very few places" were demanding immediate or near-immediate answers from those admitted off the waiting list and that the committee felt that "72 hours may seem onerous."
But Kent Rinehart, dean of admission at Marist College, said that many students needed 72 hours to consider the financing issues. He also noted that many colleges do give more than 24 hours (and in an interview after the meeting, he said that Marist was among them). If NACAC were to designate 24 hours as a "best practice," he said, those institutions might cut back the time they provide to 24 hours, fearing a competitive disadvantage for offering more time.
In the end the Assembly voted 127 to 72 to make 72 hours a best practice. But debate stalled on a proposal to require that such offers of admission also include a formal aid award letter for those who apply for financial aid.
Advocates for such a requirement said that failing to provide a formal letter left those in need of financial aid at a severe disadvantage in analyzing whether to accept such an offer. But Weede said that the Admissions Practices Committee believed that this was “tough territory” for colleges, in that they are trying to move speedily through a waiting list and to help as many applicants as possible. He said that he believed most colleges would provide aid information, and that there was no need for a formal requirement. As debate dragged on, Weede negotiated a compromise with advocates for making a formal recommendation that colleges provide an aid award letter. The proposal was withdrawn, and the Admissions Practices Committee agreed that it would study the issue and report back next year.
Several Assembly members who work with low-income students said that they were dismayed that so many college officials seemed not to see the problem with offering someone admission without a detailed letter of financial aid.
Cassie Magesis, who helps low-income high school students apply to college through the Goddard Riverside Community Center, in New York, said in an interview after the meeting that "the students I work with are, overwhelmingly, below the poverty line and the first in their families to go to college. They are ecstatic if they get in off the waitlist."
But she said that they end up in two groups: "students who commit" without knowing how they can afford to pay for college, or those who "feel they have to say no" because they can’t be certain of an aid offer. Even students in the first group, she said, are likely to be unable to complete if they can’t pay for college and the institution doesn’t come through with a good aid package. She said that letting in low-income students off the waiting list, and not providing them with a detailed aid award letter, was "rejection by acceptance," because it is not realistic for these students to accept the offers.
Magesis said that the various practical issues offered by college admissions officers struck her as the wrong focus. "We should have been talking about students and how we can best serve students, not institutions," she said.
The New York State contingent here was particularly outspoken during the meeting in favor of tougher rules on colleges with regard to waiting list policies. In a discussion with six high school counselors from the state after the Assembly meeting, every single one said that they regularly see students given little time to respond to offers of admission off the waiting list.
Mitchell Thompson, of Scarsdale High School, said that many of his students are affluent and may not have the financial worries of others. But he said that it was unfair of colleges to expect any student to make a final decision on where to go to college "in less time that you might take to decide to buy a car."
Others here questioned why there was no public discussion of whether colleges need to be placing so many students on the waiting list in the first place. Many colleges – especially less well-known private colleges – may experience significant fluctuation in their yields (or the percentage of accepted applicants who enroll), potentially leading them to use their waiting lists to fill a significant portion of their classes. But in recent years, the trend of large waiting lists has spread to some of the best-known colleges and universities, institutions with relatively stable yields and not much worry about filling their classes. Yale and Princeton Universities, for example, this year had more than 1,000 applicants each on waiting lists. 
Still others here said that they saw colleges using waiting lists in more ways that colleges are leaving students in limbo, or doing so for longer times.
John Talmage, director of college counseling at St. Paul's School, in Maryland, was one of the counselors who spoke out about the issue last year, setting off the review by NACAC of waitlist policies. He said in an interview after the Assembly meeting that he was pleased to see discussion started on the issues raised by waiting lists. But he said he thought the association was just getting started, and had lots more work to do.
Talmage said the each year seems to see colleges start new approaches to waiting lists and that these approaches don’t help students. For instance, rolling admissions institutions (in which colleges admit applicants throughout the year) have not typically been major players in waiting lists because they can increase or decrease the admission rate as the year progresses, and they start to hear back from those already admitted. This year, he said, he had a student from a rolling admissions college placed on a waitlist in December, and told that he would receive no other communication until July 31. Talmage said that this seemed way too long to leave a student in limbo, and questioned whether this was really necessary.
Of waitlist practices, he said, "it's something new every year."