College wait lists grow as schools hedge bets on enrollment numbers

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; 2:42 PM

This spring, some colleges in the Washington region have assembled waiting lists that rival the size of their incoming freshman classes, a measure of their uncertainty at a volatile time in higher education.

The University of Virginia has offered admission to 6,900 students and wait-listed 3,750, a group more than large enough to fill the 3,240 seats in the Class of 2014. The College of William and Mary placed 1,415 students on a wait list for a freshman class of about 1,400. Most of the other top national universities in the area, including Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech, are tending deep wait lists of their own.

The swelling of wait lists in the past two years reflects the lingering economic downturn and an increasingly cautious approach in admissions offices. The recession has made it more difficult for admissions officers to discern which admitted students are likely to attend and has sapped endowments, leaving colleges less inclined to risk tuition dollars by failing to fill their freshman classes. Competitive colleges are processing record numbers of applications, further complicating the task of predicting who will enroll.

"Last year, wait lists at most places were much more active than normal, because people had no idea what was going to happen," said Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown. This year, colleges "are mostly not in any better shape than they were last year," he said. "But they've had more time to prepare."

Colleges create the wait list as a sort of reserve fund, available for withdrawal if the school comes up short of students at the end of the regular admission cycle. No college wants to end up under-enrolled.

Nationwide, roughly one college in three employs a wait list. Its use is far more common among the most selective colleges, according to a definitive national survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Roughly 30 percent of wait-listed students ultimately gain admission, although the percentage is much smaller at top colleges.

For their part, the colleges wait-list many more students than they actually plan to enroll, knowing a good share will tire of the wait and commit to another school. Still, academic officials acknowledge that some wait lists are needlessly long.

"Sometimes, frankly, it's just hard to say no to so many great kids," said Greg Roberts, dean of admission at U-Va.

"I'll agree there's no scenario where we'd exhaust the wait list and still not have the class we want," said Henry Broaddus, dean of admission at William and Mary. "I think there's an appropriate national conversation to have about 'Are these wait lists too big?' "

May is wait-list month: a time when colleges tally deposits from students who have committed by the May 1 deadline and tabulate how many more students, if any, they will need to complete their freshman classes. By the start of June, most wait-listed students will have received either a polite letter of rejection or, for a lucky few, a surprise telephone call offering admission.

Urja Mittal, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, accepted an offer of admission from the University of Pennsylvania. She's on a waiting list at Columbia University, a school she initially favored over Penn.

Mittal, 18, is in a pickle. Since committing to Penn, she has learned a lot more about the school and its programs, and tried "to convince myself that Penn is the best." She has friends "who are getting attached to their school, and the mascot. I'm trying to do the same."

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