Huffman Coding

… with a bunch of Family Stuff too

The College Application Arms Race

Both of my two senior daughters were part of an academic signing ceremony. I applaud their guidance counselors for recognizing smart students (not just gifted athletes) who have earned large scholarships to college.

The group of students in the tweet below may seem large, but it could have been larger. The school had to cut off the list of students attending the ceremony to those who were offered at least $20,000 in scholarships.

At the risk of sounding like a boastful dad, both of my daughters we offered over $250,000 in scholarships in total from the schools they applied to. That was due to two things, neither of which was related to their abilities:

  • They applied to multiple colleges.
  • The retail price tag of college attendance is fiction.

Application Arms Race for Selective Schools

My daughters applied to six colleges apiece this past fall. The national average is seven. Why so many? Because competitive colleges are getting more selective and it is harder to know whether you’ll be admitted.

Decades ago, Vanderbilt selected about half of its applicants. It now accepts 11%. Stanford has only extended offers to about 5% of its applicants for awhile. Why are the acceptance rates going down? Even though the number of open spots each year at a college is pretty constant, the number of applicants for each spot is going up. The first paragraph of every one of my daughters’ college responses contained the phrase “We received a record number of applications this year…” Miami University, one of the colleges a daughter applied to, enrolls about 3600 students each year. In 2002, they received 12,000 applications. In 2014, they received 25,000. And the number for that school increases about 10% each year.

Although this is a hassle for admissions departments deluged with virtual paperwork, this is good news for highly selective colleges that have a larger pool of prospective students to pick from. They can pick the best of the best. Even good students with near perfect GPAs and AP courses are being turned away from elite schools. You now need something extra special on your resume to stand out from the crowd if you want to get into a top 25 school.

With those ever lowering acceptance rates, seniors are applying to more colleges to ensure they’ll get in somewhere to their liking. Thankfully the The Common Application makes it easier to apply easier to multiple colleges if you are willing to do the extra essays often required by selective colleges and you are willing to foot their application fee. More and more colleges are accepting that web application; if they don’t they miss out of that large pool of applicants.

Yield Arms Race for Non-Elite Schools

As versatile as my daughters are, I’m pretty sure they’ll be a Freshman at only one college. Having been accepted to most of their schools, they will decline all but one of them.

With the upward trend in the number of college applications per student, there is a corresponding downward trend in the number student enrollments per acceptance letter sent out. This is called the yield rate. While students hold their breathe until the end of March to see where they were accepted, admissions counselors watch spreadsheets in April to see how many students accept their offers.

Trying to reach the same target enrollment rate each year, non-elite colleges can’t afford to lower their acceptance rate even though they are receiving more and more applications because their yield rate is dropping.

While Miami University’s acceptance rate has been relatively constant, their yield rate has dropped from 38% in 2002 to 22% in 2014. And Miami is an attractive, inexpensive, comparatively selective, top 100 “public ivy.”

My daughter, with a slew of AP courses to her credit, happened to choose the most selective college that she was accepted to and I would guess this is pretty common among seniors. If a college isn’t a senior’s top choice, their yield rate suffers from all these applications. My other daughter got accepted to a small private college that had a yield rate of only 11%. For every 9 students who were accepted by that college, only one eventually chose to attend there. This “more selective” school was almost never a student’s first choice. It wasn’t my daughters either and we had no plans to enroll.

Tuition Arms Race

US News and other organizations attempt rank colleges, and because important but intangible qualities are hard to rank, these entities use acceptance rates, yield rates, and average applicant profile among the criteria for comparison. And when students feel the need to apply to many colleges, these rankings are a crutch to help seniors figure out which schools they should apply to. I will admit my daughter selected a fine research university that I was unfamiliar with until I investigated it on many websites, including these ranking sites. Colleges know this and try every year to get a higher ranking.

So non-elite schools with dropping yield rates are having to adjust their admissions policies to complete with elite schools. One way is to encourage more seniors to apply to your college with marketing. As I joked on twitter, the level of my daughters’ interest in a college was inversely proportional to the amount of marketing materials we received. I’m looking at you Northern Arizona University (whose ranking is so low as not to be published by USNews). If the marketing encourages a qualified candidate to apply, it improves the college’s ranking through its accepted student profile, if it encourages an unqualified candidate to apply, it improves the college’s ranking anyway by rejecting the student and lowering its admission rate. Including marketing, it now costs more than $2400 on average to recruit each student for a private college.

So what else can a college do to encourage a qualified student to apply and later accept admission? Well, money of course. The elite colleges have huge endowments that lead to large scholarships to well qualified students. For colleges without large endowments, the trend is to offer larger scholarships to compete for students but offset the cost by increasing the base tuition for everyone. The ten year historical rate of increase has been 5% for private colleges, much more than inflation. Rather than education, most of that increase goes to marketing, amenities, administration and these rebates.

Tuition Increases and discounts

It is now required by law to have tuition costs on every college’s admissions website. It is not, however, required by law to have the real average net cost of tuition. So you have to visit other websites for the average scholarship and the real cost. The cost of tuition is frustratingly much more opaque than it used to be. Both of my girls got scholarships to all but one of the schools they applied to so we had no idea how much it would cost when we applied to each one. A college application podcast I listen to mentioned a student who applied to 24 colleges in search of the maximum scholarship.

But does a senior need to apply to lots of colleges? Not really if you know your changes going in and the size of typical scholarships. The Parchment website allows you to enter the information that is also entered into the the Common Application and it computes the students chances of getting to a particular college based on matching the student to prior application profiles. Their data reveals, that by applying to just a handful of schools, each of my daughter’s combined chances of getting accepted to any of them reached 100%, so you only need to apply to schools that truly are interested in attending. You can end the arms race.

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