College-bound students obsess over admission rates. They, too, know the math: Number of students offered admission to a school’s entering first-year class divided by the total number of applicants. They know that low admission rates translate to selectivity and desirability in the hotly competitive market. As of this month, the U.S. Naval Academy had the lowest admission rate among national liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News & World Report: 6.8 percent for the class that entered in 2012.
But here is where college admissions is not like baseball.
There is no universally recognized rule for the definition of “applicant.” There is a federal definition with built-in wiggle room, there is a very similar guideline for reporting to market analysts, there are interpretations — but no hard-and-fast rules. That means college-bound students cannot really know whether one school’s admission rate is comparable with another’s.
All of this bears on the admission rate at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. As The Washington Post reported this week, the school’s rate was 19 percent in the official tally for last fall’s entering class, or 24 percent if you don’t include more than 1,100 students whose applications were deemed incomplete.
University officials defend their official tally but have begun an internal review of their data-reporting process to address any questions about it. They also emphasize that students with incomplete application files are sometimes admitted and that plenty of other colleges include incompletes in their official totals. (Not all do. The University of Virginia, Harvey Mudd College and Wellesley College, for example, say they count only complete applications. And some colleges have recently revised their counting procedures to exclude incompletes.)
Now, back to the Naval Academy.
In December 2011, The Post reported that the academy included several thousand applications in its total count that were never completed. Among them were thousands of applications for what is known in Annapolis as the “Summer Seminar” — a six-day event for teenagers who want to learn more about the academy between their junior and senior years in high school.
The academy says the application for the seminar makes clear that it doubles as an preliminary application for the academy itself.
Here’s the federal definition of an applicant:
“An individual who has fulfilled the institution’s requirements to be considered for admission (including payment or waiving of the application fee, if any) and who has been notified of one of the following actions: admission, nonadmission, placement on waiting list, or application withdrawn by applicant or institution.”