An interesting recent discussion on the eList for ACCIS (Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools) had to do with Board reports, a topic that those of us in independent schools have to think about at this time of year while juggling everything else. How much information, at what depth of detail, should we share with our Boards about the college admissions year, and how do we educate them about the larger trends and challenges facing our students—and us?
A close friend claims to be a convert to “Zen” presentations, with pictures taking the place of words and minimal text (something you’re unlikely ever to see in this blog). A year ago his Board report was organized around three sets of iuitials—ED (Early Decision), DI (Demonstrated Interest), and FP (Full Pay). His argument was that those three concepts explained most of the things taking place in the college admissions world affecting his students. If he had only been a little less Zen and a little more attuned to acronyms, he could have reorganized into the memorable DI/FP/ED, or “difped.”
The consensus among ACCIS members who replied was that Demonstrated Interest has been a bigger issue this year. That has been true in cases where highly-qualified applicants end up Wait Listed at selective institutions, and also in some cases where students on the bubble were admitted due to the interest they had shown. Several counselors reported that colleges seem to be paying closer attention to the “Why here?” essay as a sign that a student has done research and has depth of interest, and that forging a relationship with an admissions officer might pay off with an offer of admission, where failure to connect could result in being Wait Listed even when superbly qualified.
I have come to believe that all those issues (Early Decision, Demonstrated Interest, and the use of Wait Lists) are related. I also think Demonstrated Interest is no longer the right term. What we refer to as Demonstrated Interest has become Likelihood to Enroll. Colleges and universities, especially selective private institutions, are so concerned with admit rate and yield that they are taking likelihood to enroll into consideration in making admissions decisions.
That explains the popularity of Early Decision, where there is in theory a 100% likelihood to enroll, and it also explains why many institutions are using Wait Lists as a kind of “Early Decision 3,” filling a certain percentage of the class (up to 10-15%) off the Wait List where interest becomes a much more important factor than in the regular process.
The change I’ve sensed this year is that the process of demonstrating interest is becoming more complex. Whereas demonstrating interest used to be something a student only had to do once, whether by visiting the campus or by meeting with a college rep at school, now demonstrating interest is an on-going process. As colleges attempt to predict who is likely to enroll rather than who is interested, many are looking for multiple contacts, tracking hits on the website or student portal. I think that interest is an appropriate factor to consider in the admissions process; I just wish that colleges would be transparent to students about what counts as interest and how they measure it.
The changing landscape for Demonstrated Interest produces new headaches for counselors trying to advise students interested in coming off a Wait List. I recently heard about a school where the counseling staff is divided over the issue of whether a student should promise a college she will enroll if admitted off the Wait List. The student in question is genuinely interested in the college where she is Wait Listed, but is unsure now that May 1 has passed whether she would withdraw from the first college if offered off the Wait List by the second.
One staff member sees the student as breaking a promise if she doesn’t accept the Wait List, while the other argues that the vagaries of the Wait List, especially in a time when colleges are trying to calculate likelihood to enroll, make the student’s ethical obligations far from clear.
I am sympathetic to both positions. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes keeping a promise as the paradigmatic ethical act, in that having made a promise imposes ethical obligations on an individual even if outweighed by competing ethical principles, and I have always advised students that commitments and promises are not to be taken lightly. At the same time, I don’t see the Wait List case as comparable to reneging on an Early Decision commitment.
The NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice (Section 2.B.6) states that colleges are not allowed to ask Wait List students for a commitment to enroll prior to a written offer of admission. I haven’t seen colleges ask directly, but have an increasing sense that they would like to have a pretty good idea that a student will accept before making the Wait List offer. Colleges use Wait Lists to manage enrollment with precision, and they don’t want to make 30 offers to fill 10 spots if they can fill them with only 10 offers.
The other side of the issue is that savvy students, or those with savvy counselors, understand that interest/likelihood to enroll are key parts of the Wait List game, and may commit either implicitly or explicitly to enroll if admitted off the Wait List. Is it wrong for them to do so if they’re not sure? Should a counselor encourage or discourage them?
I have always taken the position that honesty and commitment are values to be taken seriously. If a student tells a college they will enroll if admitted off the Wait List when they have no intention, when they are merely collecting an acceptance, that is wrong. If, however, a student honestly believes they would likely enroll, communicates that they will come, then chooses to remain at the institution where they have already deposited, I see that as different, as not dishonest. The college has no right to ask for that commitment, and by not admitting the student originally, in effect telling the student that the college doesn’t really want to admit her (that may be a harsh interpretation of what Wait List signifies), the college has given away its moral bargaining position. When likelihood to enroll is part of the college’s equation, such that a student communicating that they are interested but not certain of enrolling may preclude an offer being made, any commitment must be considered conditional.
The poet W.H. Auden said that it is easy to promise that you will love someone forever and much harder to promise that you will love them next Tuesday. I tell students that making final decisions is hard because you are no longer talking about possibilities but making choices with real consequences. By choosing one you close the door on others. A student who promises to enroll prior to being admitted off a Wait List is promising love forever. They can’t be expected to promise they will still feel the love next Tuesday when getting off the Wait List is a reality rather than a possibility.