The wait-list started as a backup plan for college admissions officers who needed to fill remaining seats in a freshman class if not enough of the accepted students committed to attending by the May 1 deadline.
But over the years, at many schools, the wait-list has become a “boneyard, a political de facto place for students that schools don’t want to admit” but don’t have the guts to deny, said Seth Allen, the vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College in California.
Allen pointed to the database that The New York Times puts together each spring using admission statistics volunteered by universities, including the numbers of applications, acceptances and wait-listed applicants. Of the 78 schools currently on the list — a small fraction of the thousands of colleges and universities in the United States — more than half reported wait-list numbers. Of those wait-lists, two-thirds have more than 1,000. About a third of the wait-lists were nearly the same size as the number of accepted students. Most are private institutions.
Wait-lists offer students a glimmer of hope — and perhaps unfairly so, Allen said.
“It’s not serving students well,” Allen said Friday morning in D.C. “There needs to be a system in place so that students on the wait-list have some hope of getting in.”
Pomona isn’t perfect, Allen said, but it’s getting better. When he started working at the college about two years ago, the admissions office was accepting and wait-listing about the same number of students. This year, the school accepted 922 and wait-listed 601.
Of the students given wait-list offers, about 45 percent accepted a spot on the wait-list. Of those, about 50 students were accepted this month. “Some are jumping for joy,” he said, “others are conflicted.”
I also counted five schools that wait-listed more students than it accepted, including Bates College in Maine (1,240 acceptances and 2,099 wait-list offers), Pitzer College in California (597 acceptances and 1,380 wait-list offers) and Bowdoin College in Maine (1,021 acceptances and 1,374 wait-list offers).
But those numbers are not quite as crazy as they seem, Angel B. Perez, Pitzer’s vice president and dean of admission and financial aid, told me in an e-mail on Friday. (Pitzer and Pomona are both part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, seven institutions with adjoining campuses and many shared resources.)
Each year only about a quarter of applicants who are offered a spot on Pitzer’s wait-list agree to it, Perez wrote. That takes the list from 1,380 to a few hundred. And many of those students become dedicated to other schools before an offer arrives.
“In the span of a few weeks, you can go from a list of wait list candidates of a few hundred to just a few dozen,” Perez wrote. “In the era of admissions frenzy where students apply to 10 or 20 colleges, those of us responsible for enrollment management have to be more cautious to make sure we have a backup plan... After all, we are at the mercy of 17 year olds.”