Journalism in the Public Interest

The Admission Arms Race: Six Ways Colleges Game Their Numbers

There’s a lot of work that goes into the admissions stats that universities tout. 

There's a lot of work that goes into the admissions stats that universities tout. (File photo, Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

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 out applications

Express applications — sometimes known as "fast apps," "snap apps," "V.I.P. 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 with 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 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 that choose to attend.

Though it's no longer statistically factored into U.S. News & World Report's 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.

4) Rejecting good students universities think are just using them as a backup

While opening up early decision and early action programs is a way for colleges to force students to demonstrate that they're their top choice, schools use a variety of ways to divine the same information from regular decision students as well. This is perhaps the most common — and in some ways, common sense — method used by colleges to improve yield: simply to admit only those students who they perceive as likely to enroll.

"There are so many silent electronic footprints they're leaving nowadays," said Sundar Kumarasamy, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at the University of Dayton.

Kumarasamy said that his institution tracks many of these subtle signals of interest from applicants: They can tell whether individual applicants clicked to open email communications, logged into the system to check the status of an application, and not only whether they called the school, but how long that phone call lasted. If the school gets the sense that an applicant isn't interested, that's factored in. Kumarasamy calls it "recruiting for fit."

The interest — or lack thereof — can ultimately mean that the school rejects some candidates who on paper are more than qualified but failed to demonstrate interest.

5) Making tests optional

One admissions trend within the past decade has been the test-optional movement. Colleges that have stopped requiring standardized test scores often cite equity and diversity as reasons to make the move, noting the strong correlation between socioeconomic status and test scores.

But going test-optional can also help universities' stats. Critics note that in addition to attracting more applicants, the move ultimately skews the average test scores that institutions report: Lower-scoring applicants are the most likely to withhold their scores and higher-scoring applicants are the most likely to submit them.

6) Making stuff up

Some colleges actually cross the line with their creative number-crunching. Since the start of last year, five colleges have acknowledged overstating their admissions statistics: Bucknell University, Claremont McKenna College, Emory University, George Washington University, and Tulane University's business school.

Admissions data is self-reported and no outside party is responsible for verifying it. The recent scandals involving falsified data have only come to light after colleges disclosed the problems themselves.

U.S. News' Robert Morse has said there is "no reason to believe that the misreporting is widespread." But a survey by Inside Higher Ed last fall suggests that even admissions directors are skeptical of the reporting, with 91 percent of those surveyed saying believe they believe there's more misreporting than has been identified.


Of course, some colleges resist the pressure to pump up admissions numbers. Doing so is unusual enough that it attracts notice and media write-ups.

Boston College made "a strategic decision" this cycle to raise the admissions bar by adding an essay. It got the expected drop in applications — and a recent write-up in the New York Times. A handful of others, including Ursinus College, have done the same. In addition to requiring essays again, they dropped the fast app.

But for many other colleges, what's been called the admissions "arms race" is on — with these strategically achieved statistics as the scoreboard.

I actually remember being given advice to “just wait” when applying to colleges, and I suspect it was related to the first couple of items.  The first applications I got from schools were novel-length monstrosities.  A few weeks later, the same schools sent a one-page-plus-essays application.  By the time the deadlines were approaching, one…it’s been a long time, so I don’t want to name names, but a fairly small but well-known engineering school sent me what amounted to a pre-filled post card.  No fee, no essay, no postage.

More on-topic and current, one emerging game is padding the placement numbers by hiring alumni:

At that point, isn’t the student just paying his or her own salary, with more debt?

Charles H. Bryan

April 23, 2013, 1:47 p.m.

Maybe it’s because I hold a diploma from the University of Michigan, so I’m a little sensitive, but if you were going to use a photo of an Admissions Office, why did you use one from a college not listed in your article as a possible offender (or at least not identified any more specifically than any other college that brands itself as selective)? Part of the reason I read the article is that I thought my alma mater was involved in some scandal.

I love your reporting on this as well as other issues. I wonder whether one might be able to get a good handle on some of the number games by tracking aggregate application numbers in a spreadsheet. This should show unusual spikes & changes.

Also, it would be interesting to see whether colleges note, in their audited statements, the amount of money they took in from application fees, and again comparing that over time.

It is a lot of numbercrunching, but for a student trying to write a great dissertation, there should be great ways of sniffing out what goes on.

Ultimately that might even become a marketable product…

It seems unfathomable for universities and colleges to portray themselves as nonprofit institutions dedicated to education and spread of knowledge and operate like a fortune 500 companies. The top 25 schools in the US have a collective endowment of over $100 BILLION and yet the cost of admission has outpaced inflation every year for the past two decades. They all earn vast sums of money from TV contracts for sports, promotional goods, licensing agreements….ect. Pay for presidents, deans, coaches, athletic directors all in the 6 to 7 figure range with lush benefits and plenty of time off, while professors get paid long duration’s off (a sabbatical in edu speak) to research and publish. Best of all, they have the audacity to call themselves “not for profit” and pay “0” taxes. What a shameful farce, while our lawmakers sit by and embrace the system!

Making tests optional?

How about encouraging students to prep and take the tests as many times as they would like!

Just fresh from this corrupted process, I was repulsed by schools that did just that. After all, if they just look at the best test score (never mind what that means for probability to graduate or do well in life!), they could report higher test scores—a boon for the US News and World Propaganda Report. Long live the educational industrial complex!

Two of the factors which have done the most to undermine the competitive ability of the US are a ) the rankings of US News & World Report as well as its key factor, b ) the SAT I test.

The SAT I test is a very accurate and reliable indicator of family affluence, as those able to retain coaching can learn the otherwise useless attributes of the gamesmanship of the SAT I test. 

Henry Davis of Dallas’ The Study Hall has the ability to increase by massive amounts the verbal and math scores of students on the SAT I as long as they have both an adequate education and the willingness to work.  He is quick to advise that those techniques he teaches will probably never have any other value to the students during their entire lives.

If one wanted to insure that the US had an effective caste system, one ideal solution might be to set up the SAT I system, which those of affluent families could purchase coaching to excel.  Highly capable and promising students who made poor choices of parents, unable to afford the costly SAT I review are destined to be downgraded by USN≀ sensitive colleges to either declined or wait listed status even though they have enormous potential if only they could obtain a solid education.

Another barrier to entry to the best colleges is the substantial fees charged by its various tests by The College Board.  Lower socioeconomic families shy from paying these substantial fees and thus obscure the potential of their students from the admissions committees of the best schools.

It would not be unfair to categorize our macro educational infrastructure as simply:  “Perpetuation of the Underclass”.

When you see the corporate ads of those companies unable to source the highly trained talent they must have to compete globally noting the
global ranking of US students falling behind 25 other countries, the above are among the root causes.

I agree with the vast majority of comments here, except maybe Charles (yeah, you might be a little sensitive, because I didn’t even notice it was the U of Michigan :-P).

I would add to @dono59, my observation is that the administrative staffs of these educational institutions keep expanding prodigiously.  And, they get paid nice cushy 6 figures as well.  You have several Deans and then Assistant Deans, Advisors, and other administrative cogs that need to be paid for.  This also seems to be a trend with public schools as well, as the ideal positions that get the best benefits and long term job stability are not (surprise, surprise!) in actual teaching, but in administration.

There needs to be a much more serious discussion of the cost and benefits of our education system in this country, in all respects.  The worst critique I heard by a new graduate was that he felt no sympathy for his classmates who went to college and majored in English or Philosophy and are now in debt and jobless, because those are unmarketable degrees.  However, when did a college education become a vocational pursuit? 

College is supposed to be about intellectual curiosity, and exploring that curiosity.  However, the economy and job market being what it is, it makes no sense to explore any intellectual curiosities anymore when it means you incur the equivalent of a household mortgage to do so. Instead we have vocational students who are all preparing to go off to business school, law school, or medical school, which quaintly allows them to double down on their debt load. 

Academic freedom is often described in terms of the pursuits of faculty and professors.  But, we should consider the academic freedom of students as well, the freedom to explore new ideas and areas of study without having to worry about a noose of debt hanging over their heads when their 4 years are up.  Critical thinking skills and innovation are suffering, and we are dwindling into a China style economy and education system.  The new indentured class (everyone outside the top 1%) are the perfect cogs to fit in the economic wheel, all willing to do whatever employers ask them to, because they can’t get rid of that debt noose, not even in bankruptcy.

Welcome to the brave new economy.

As a quick disclaimer, I’m an adjunct at my alma mater, which is being absorbed into a major school we’ve all heard of.  So take the following (and previous) as a quasi-expert and/or bitter perspective, if you want.  Could be either.

To Sam’s point’s, I’ve heard it suggested by more than a few people that, due to both the growing executive compensation and the near-obsessive construction, students looking for a college should start asking not just about placement and opportunity, but whether the school will even exist in five to ten years.  I can tell you first hand, having taught twice at phased-out campuses, once you tell students the place is closing and the staff they probably won’t have jobs, quality doesn’t improve.  It gets worse when, invariably, the mother ship starts calling said staff and students looking for donations.

I think there is, however, a big role for a budget school (enough to cover overhead and some kind of pledge to not charge more) that focuses on “learning how to learn,” probably integrated with sort of a “community internship” program (that is, not just working at local megacorporation branches, but helping local bands, soup kitchens, cleanup projects, Town Hall, and so forth) and DIY tools (OpenPCR gives you what the Genome Project would have killed for, and spent millions developing, for six or seven hundred bucks, for example).

If schools don’t do it, the students will figure out they can do it without a school.  There’s this thing called “the Internet,” you see, and besides cat pictures and conspiracy theories, people post lessons in all formats on almost any topic imaginable, often for free (hit for just one sample—an encyclopedia, books, courses, and on and on).

Credentials, unfortunately, would be a stumbling block.  Accreditation bureaus (CSAB for computer science programs, for example, but most fields have one) are largely exclusionary and at least partly funded by major schools to be so.  If you start a low-budget school, your lack of PhD staff, financial aid, and overall capitalization (because your bank account helps students…how, exactly?) count strongly against you.

That means students can’t get outside financial aid to attend, and sharp employers dismiss the degree as a product of a “diploma mill.”

By the way, when I was a student, I was told that no school worth attending would ever use tuition to pay for overhead.  In essence, there was little chance that tuition had any direct relation to expenses, as those were covered by endowments, research grants, and investments.  That appears to have changed, as many people in parallel positions have since suggested that all those other sources have burned off, resulting in tuition being the primary revenue source for a lot of schools.  I don’t know how accurate either angle is, but if that’s been the evolution, I’d expect colleges to start falling like dominoes in the next few years.

Kris, I thought the same thing about retaking tests when I heard about it, but after seeing classes that used it and thinking a little more about it, it actually makes some sense.  In any job worth getting paid for, you get feedback as you’re working on things, and improve until the “release date.”  Either that, or the employee’s an idiot doomed to repeated, catastrophic failure.

And consider, the real point of a test should be diagnostic, showing you where you need improvement, rather than (as John Taylor Gatto put it, years back) the degree, to the last percentage point, to which one should be ashamed of himself.  What good is a diagnosis without the opportunity to fix it?

Mind you, it’s hard to implement such a scheme in a useful way that doesn’t involve backbreaking effort on the instructor’s part.  You’d need a series of exams that test the same topic, to prevent cheating, and someone needs to grade and regrade everything on an ongoing basis.  But it’s at least hypothetically doable.

It does inflate the numbers, of course, but not artificially in the sense that the numbers are higher without the students being better.  As far as I can tell, students learn and retain more when they can work this way.

Even John Katzman of Princeton Review has problems with the SAT!!!

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories