Colleges grow their wait lists, leaving more students in limbo

Morgan Lundblad, 18, a senior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, sits at desk in her Spanish classroom in Flossmoor, Illinois, April 5, 2012. She applied to 12 colleges and got accepted to some, denied by others and is on the wait-listed for Harvard, her dream school. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

After months in limbo, Morgan Lundblad recently opened her long-awaited email from Harvard University to find only more uncertainty.

She had been wait-listed.

The senior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Chicago had applied to a dozen of the nation’s most elite colleges. When the smoke cleared, Lunblad still did not have a definitive path forward. Of the schools where she was accepted, she narrowed her choices to the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania. Still, she can’t quite let go of Harvard, which had a record low 5.9 percent acceptance rate for this fall. She may not know her fate until mid-summer.

“It’s not really a rejection, but it kind of is,” she said. “It just doesn’t help you too much. I need to make a decision.”

While no one tracks the number of college applicants nationwide who are wait-listed, admissions experts and high school guidance counselors agree the ranks have swelled in the last five years. That leaves more students consigned to the half-way house of admissions, where they are unable to fully celebrate an admission or properly mourn a denial.

The number of schools using wait lists is on the rise, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. In 2010, 48 percent of colleges reported using a wait list, up from 39 percent in 2009 and 35 percent in 2008. At the same time, the number of students plucked from standby decreased, from 34 percent to 28 percent.

The trend is driven by the lingering economic downturn, along with the unpredictability of the admissions process, experts said. Many schools are seeing more and more applicants as seniors cast a wider net, applying to more institutions to hedge their bets.

Also, the recession has interjected its own volatility to the match game. Over the summer, a parent can get laid off or reassess skyrocketing tuition costs in tough times, triggering a last-minute shift from private school to State U.

As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for admissions officers to predict who actually will show up in the fall, so schools have countered with an insurance policy: a larger reserve pool to manage their enrollment, officials say.

“It’s become a ping-pong game that both sides play with each other,” said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “And it’s totally gotten out of hand.”

The end result is that many are left dangling.

“It’s insane…This year has been the absolute worst, with more kids on the wait list than ever,” said Laura Docherty, college counselor at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill. “It’s just painful … and it really drags out the process.”

Because many institutions closely guard their wait-list numbers, cracking the code of how many eventually get a coveted fat envelope is a subject of intense speculation on online message boards. Some schools declined to provide data to the Tribune, but statistics could be gleaned from college websites and other sources.

Northwestern University’s wait list shrunk from about 3,500 last year to 2,857 for 2012. Still, this year’s wait list is about 1,300 names longer than six years ago, school officials said.

MIT’s wait list fluctuated between roughly 450 and 740 from 2007-10, then it shot up to 1,000 in 2011. Wait lists at some smaller schools grew as well. Grinnell College in Iowa said its roster rose from 541 last year to 1,189 in 2012. Bates College in Maine has not yet released its most recent data, but the wait list increased from 871 in 2010 to 1,305 in 2011.

How many back-ups will be admitted varies from year to year, school officials said. Although it’s tempting to cling to a fantasy, most experts suggest applicants should regard their limbo status with a hefty dose of realism.

At Vanderbilt University, for example, 9.4 percent from the wait list were accepted—a number that has held steady for the last four years. Last year, MIT plucked only 26 students for acceptance from its reserve pool of 1,000.

Northwestern said it admitted no one from its wait list in 2011. The year before, it accepted just 21 out of 3,204.

Said Nassirian: “I tell them to think of a wait list as a ‘no.’”

Bonnie Miller Rubin/
Chicago Tribune

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