College wait lists growing in popularity

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(MoneyWatch) Over the last decade, colleges and universities have increasingly embracedcollege wait lists, according to a new survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

The report, which is based on a survey of 369 four-year institutions, revealed that in 10 years the percentage of schools using wait lists in admissions has climbed from 32 percent to 45 percent. Wait lists are a tool primarily used by elite private colleges and universities. It's the most prestigious schools that tend to place the largest percentage of students on their wait lists, and ultimately admit a smaller percentage of them.

Poor wait-list odds

Despite the growing popularity of college wait lists, applicants have little chance of getting off of them. According to the NACAC, schools have admitted fewer than a third of applicants from the wait lists.

The group also found that some schools string hopeful applicants along. While 50 percent of schools stopped admitting students off their 2011 wait list in May or June, 29 percent didn't shut down the list until July, and 13 percent waited until August. 

While plenty of schools take their time notifying students about their wait-list decisions, they want those who have been accepted to decide quickly after they have been plucked off a wait list. Some schools even insist that applicants accept a late-admission invitation within 24 hours.

Abusing wait lists

Why do schools offer so many students places on wait lists when their chances off being admitted are low? The strategy can protect an institution's admission yield. If a school accepts fewer students in the first round and shunt more applicants to a wait list, they can preserve their exclusivity. Schools also like to wait-list students of alumni and VIPs rather than reject them outright, hoping to reduce hard feelings.

Unfortunately, elite schools can get away with dumping a thousand or more students on wait lists because there are no repercussions. Students will continue to apply in droves to schools like Princeton University, which according to College Board statistics, offered 1,248 applicants positions on its wait list and ultimately accepted only 19.  Georgetown University padded its wait list even more by offering invitations to 2,170 applicants, but admitting only two applicants. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, teenagers who are invited on wait lists, should decline the invitations. They should move on and attend schools that will provide the best fit financially and academically. If teenagers stopped enabling schools that want to string students along, maybe some of this wait-list abuse would end.

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