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Thursday, May 10, 2007

For Some College Hopefuls Wait Goes On and On

Some colleges have longer wait lists than in previous years, offering a chance of openings if enough accepted applicants don't enroll.

By Larry Gordon, Times Staff Writer
May 10, 2007

For most students, the drawn-out drama of college admissions decisions was finished last week. Choices were made, deposits mailed in, successes savored and wounds licked. Time to think about roommates and classes.But not for everyone.According to admissions experts, some popular colleges have compiled longer wait lists than in previous years, dangling the possibility, however small, that slots may open up if enough previously accepted applicants don't enroll.As a result, more students will remain in limbo, possibly through June. It's rather like the pains and joys of teen romance: They're happy to have found a match — in this case a college — but hope a dreamier one comes along at the last minute."My impression is it seems to be something of a trend, an interesting phenomenon," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.Compiling a wait list can be a softer way to reject otherwise well-qualified students during the current demographic bulge of high school seniors. But mainly the lists function, Nassirian said, as insurance for schools to hit their enrollment goals. It's becoming harder for colleges to predict how many possible freshmen will accept offers because the Internet makes it easy for ambitious students to apply to six or 10 or more colleges, quantities that were much rarer a generation ago. Whether more students will be accepted this year from wait lists remains to be seen, especially at competitive, elite schools. Meanwhile, waiting is tough.Bennett Duval, a senior at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, was accepted at five of the 10 colleges he applied to and chose UC Santa Barbara, his father's alma mater. UC Santa Barbara "seems to be the best fit for me," said Duval, who is an excellent student and captain of Loyola's volleyball team. "It's the right distance from home, not too far, not too close."But Duval, who wants to study economics, was placed last month on the wait list at Boston College. He likes its East Coast location, Jesuit tradition and more intimate scale. So he has kept his name on the list — with about 1,500 others — despite the uncertainty and the $100 deposit he already sent to UC Santa Barbara. "It's especially hard since you look around and your friends are sure where they are going to college," he said. "You've waited and you still have to wait some more."Joanna Lee, a senior at Marlborough School in Los Angeles, was accepted at seven colleges, rejected at two and wait-listed at five. She has sent a commitment letter to Brown University and has decided to stay on the wait list of another Ivy League school, Columbia University. If Columbia accepts her, her choice may depend on financial aid, said Lee, who has very good grades and plays softball and the flute.Her advice to high school juniors? Be flexible."I would say not to have your heart set on one school," said Joanna, who may major in pre-med or art. "If you do, it's likely you can be disappointed because the competition is so rigorous these days."Definitive statistics on wait lists are hard to come by, although a survey by the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling found that about two-thirds of highly selective colleges maintain wait lists, and about a third of all colleges and universities do. About half of those schools in recent years reported increasing the size of their lists.But successfully gaining admission off a wait list is difficult. Schools considered selective (those that take fewer than half of all applicants) admitted 12.5% of wait-listed students in fall 2006, the latest admission association figures.At the most highly sought-after schools, things can be grim. Princeton University, which reports 792 wait-list offers this year, admitted no one from its list in the last two years.With those odds, many high school counselors decry the nerve-racking effect on young people who should be enjoying their last weeks with classmates."It's terrible. It seems this process never ends," said Hector Martinez, director of college guidance at the Webb Schools in Claremont. He said he has seen more qualified students put on wait lists over the last few years. That seems to involve more girls as colleges seek to rebalance enrollments that tipped to female majorities.Partly driving the competition for slots at top-tier colleges and universities is the rising number of high school graduates — and the growing obsession with the rankings of schools by guidebooks and magazines.
After the population of high school graduates dropped a bit in the mid-'90s, their numbers have grown about 24% over the last decade to about 3.23-million graduates this year. The National Center for Education Statistics said the trend will continue until 2009 before dipping again for a few years.In general, here is how wait lists work: Colleges accept some students, reject others and ask still others whether they want to be wait-listed. Fewer than half say yes since they have been accepted by another school they love or don't want to delay a choice. But even those who remain on a wait list are urged to place a deposit at another school.Officials insist that students are not formally ranked on wait lists and that plucking them from the lists depends on a class' composition. At some campuses, a student who does not need financial aid may be given a leg up. At others, ethnic or geographic diversity might be important. Or whether the school needs another violinist or soccer player. Wait lists are so long because schools can't anticipate demographic gaps, said Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University in North Carolina. The school admitted about 20% of its 19,000 applicants and offered to wait-list about 1,900, a rise of about 5% over last year. Guttentag said he might need to add more engineering majors, or "I may need to fill liberal-arts students. I may want to enroll some from North Carolina, the West Coast or overseas," Guttentag said.A national trading up of enrollment happens in mid-May. If the Ivy League and other hot campuses take students from wait lists, schools in the next most-popular tier lose students and offer spots to people on their own lists, and on and on. During the waiting period, many schools pay more attention to students who express keen interest, according to David Hawkins, the admission association's director of public policy. Those who don't show a strong commitment to attend "will almost certainly not be accepted off of the wait list," he said.At Reed College in Oregon, some students on past wait lists campaigned mightily, sending the school cakes and daily postcards. Reed's admission dean, Paul Marthers, said such wooing could help but he won't encourage unusual effort because "it doesn't mean the student is going to get in." Marthers said he expects that colleges across the country this year will see a significant amount of last-minute enrollment shifts using wait lists. Some schools, like his, wound up with too many students last year and are now more conservative with acceptances, mindful that they can make up any gaps by drawing students from wait lists. Reed accepted about a third of its 3,363 applicants and compiled a wait list of 800 names, about 100 more than last year. Claremont McKenna College saw the number of applicants rise by about 15% this year to 4,140. It accepted 670 in hopes of enrolling about 270 freshmen, said Richard Vos, vice president and dean of admissions. To avoid over-enrollment, it reduced acceptances a bit but offered wait list status to 849, about 200 more than last year. In other years, it has taken as many as 29 from the list and as few as none, he said.Other campuses with substantially larger wait lists this year include Northwestern University in Illinois and the University of Pennsylvania. The wait lists tend to be used by such private schools, not public institutions like the University of California. But some prominent private schools, such as USC, eschew them. Katharine Harrington, USC's dean of admission and financial aid, said the school instead offers backup candidates a chance to enroll in the following spring semester rather than the fall. "We don't like the idea of saying, 'It's maybe, but maybe not.' We much prefer to say, 'We want you to come but in the spring,' " she said.


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