by Marian Wang, ProPublica.
As college-bound students weigh their options, they often look to the various statistics that universities trumpet — things like the high number of applications, high test scores, and low acceptance rate.
But students may want to consider yet another piece of info: the ways in which schools can pump up their stats.
“There’s no question about it,” said David Kalsbeek, senior vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University. “There are ways of inflating a metric to improve perceived measures of quality.”
Some of these tweaks — such as a more streamlined application — can actually benefit students. Others serve to make the admissions process more confusing. Here’s a rundown.
1) Quickie, often pre-filled applications
Express applications — sometimes known as “fast apps,” “snap apps,” “VIP applications” or “priority applications” — are often pre-filled with some student information and require little, if anything, in the way of essays. And especially when they’re accompanied by an application-fee waiver, what’s a student got to lose? Not much, fans of fast apps argue.
The school, meanwhile, has a lot to gain. The tactic, designed to broaden the pool of applicants, can help super-charge application numbers. Drexel University and St. John’s University — the only two private colleges among the top 10 for most-applied-to colleges in 2011 — both market broadly and use fast apps.
Both schools received roughly 50,000 applications in the fall of 2011, according to U.S. News & World Report data. Both schools enroll roughly 3,000 freshmen.
Getting in more applications can also boost the appearance of selectivity. Critics contend that some schools use fast apps specifically for this purpose — luring students in to apply to institutions they hadn’t heard of and ultimately rejecting a portion of them. Neither school, when contacted, responded to requests for comment.
2) Shorter applications, Common Applications, and shorter Common Applications
Another way to get more applications is to adopt the Common Application, as nearly 500 colleges have since its inception in 1975. The form, which lets students apply to multiple schools at once, has fueled the long-term rise in applications. And as more colleges have adopted it, other schools have felt pressure to start using it too.
Many schools have long required that students submitting a Common Application include additional answers or essays. Dropping the extra requirements can result in a spike in applications. That’s what happened for Skidmore College, which saw a 42 percent jump in applications this cycle after it stopped requiring supplemental essays to the Common App. (Skidmore College’s dean of admissions did not respond to a request for an interview.)
3) Dipping into early-application pools
Another statistic schools often try to control is their “yield” — that’s admissions parlance for the percentage of students offered admission who choose to attend.
Though it’s no longer statistically factored into U.S. News’ ubiquitous rankings, yield rates are still a data point made available to prospective students. They’re also inextricably tied to acceptance rates because schools use previous yields to calculate how many students they should admit to fill a class. Schools with low yields must extend lots of acceptances, knowing many accepted students will go elsewhere.
One way to increase yields is to draw heavily from the pool of applicants who chose to apply through early action, or to encourage early decision, which is binding. At the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, nearly half of the spots in the freshman class are filled through the university’s binding early decision process.
Penn is hardly alone in leaning heavily on early decision. Many schools accept early-decision applicants at a higher rate than students who apply later. American University, for instance, accepts about 75 percent of early-decision applicants, though its overall acceptance rate is far lower.
One other thing to note: Because early decision involves committing before any financial aid is offered, it generally attracts wealthier families. Students who need financial aid or want to be able to make cost comparisons between different schools are typically advised not to apply early — which can hurt their chances.