How many students does it take to fill a 2,800 person freshman class? Nearly 50,000.  That’s the answer for some colleges at least. 

That number may seem a little out of whack, but it’s not uncommon to see institutions revert to drastic measures to fill their incoming freshman classes. While some institutions chase applicants to inflate vanity metrics (like selectivity) that are tied to certain college rankings, others expand their applicant pool simply to stay afloat.

But research suggests that this strategy isn’t working. A recent survey by the National Association of College Admissions counselors found that for the classes colleges enrolled in fall 2013, the average institutional yield rate continued a long-term drop, to 36 percent. In 2002, the national average was 49 percent. This means that of all the students the average college admits, nearly two-thirds decide not to enroll. 

And, of those students who are admitted, there’s little evidence that they will be successful should they wind up enrolling, creating problems down stream for enrollment management offices struggling with low retention or completion rates.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently described how antiquated the college admissions process has become. According to the article, “The way selective four-year colleges look at a student — primarily, at her high-school grades and standardized test scores — can’t tell them how far she will go, whether she will study hard, get good grades, stay enrolled, contribute this or that to her campus, earn a degree, and prosper down the road. Evaluations are educated guesswork.”

The reality is that it shouldn’t take 50,000 students to help an institution fill a class of 2,800 students. It should only take finding the right 2,800 students.

But, when you consider that almost 80 percent of students are applying to three or more colleges, and nearly one-third are applying to seven or more colleges, finding the right students to fill your class seems like finding a needle in a haystack.

Some believe an emphasis on rankings hurts both students and institutions. At a recent Education Summit held by The Atlantic, Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, suggested that the tradition of conferring status to a student’s admission, based on an institution’s exclusivity, sets the wrong standard. Instead, he argues that if status were attached to achievement rather than exclusion, it would lead to a more exclusive system based on rigor and academic merit.

So, how do college admissions professionals find the right students? Some institutions are turning to alternative measures beyond test scores and GPA in order to evaluate applicants more holistically. As noted by the Chronicle, “Assessments of noncognitive attributes — leadership, creativity, determination — represent a promising innovation in admissions.”

In addition, a report by CareerKey suggests that understanding factors such as personality type and strengths could help students and colleges find a mutual fit. According to ACT scientists Jeff Allen and Steve Robbins, students are more likely to flourish is academic settings that fit their personality types, and their interests affect the major they pursue and the likelihood that they will persist with that major.

Those working in higher education admissions have heard about the need to start thinking about the admissions process as a “siv” rather than a “funnel.” Yet, the top of the funnel continues to widen each year as institutions try to keep pace with the number of seats they need to fill and the number of applicants to their institution, many of whom could be kicking tires rather than showing genuine interest.

By understanding student’s interests and strengths, college admissions professionals can focus on finding those students that will be successful, and not just those students that meet minimum requirements for admissions. 


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