What to Expect if You Were Wait-Listed

Many colleges expect to admit more wait-listed students this year, but that news is bittersweet.

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The recession is causing many colleges to put record numbers of applicants on wait lists this spring. Admissions officers say they need a pool of students ready to fill seats if admitted students change their minds for financial reasons or get accepted off wait lists for schools they like more.

That news is bittersweet for the tens of thousands of students still stuck in college limbo.

The sweet: A wait-list spot this year could mean better hopes than ever. Many admissions officers say they expect to eventually make admissions offers to more wait-listed students than in previous years.

But there's no escaping the bitter: In many cases, schools are wait-listing students they would have admitted last year. Those who choose to remain on wait lists could be dangling through midsummer. And getting accepted off the wait list this year could be especially tricky and expensive.

Some schools, such as the University of Texas-Austin, will simply try to fill surprise gaps in underenrolled majors. Others, such as Emory University in Atlanta, are more likely to admit wait-listed students who make special efforts to show their commitment to the school. But especially this year, after losing endowment funds to the stock market decline, many private colleges plan to offer less financial aid to wait-listed students than to regular admits and so will give preference to wealthier applicants. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, for example, says that if regularly admitted students use up the aid budget in April, only students who can pay the full freight will be accepted off the wait list.

Historically, the odds for wait-listed students have been discouraging. The National Association for College Admission Counseling says only about 30 percent of students who chose to remain on a wait list eventually got accepted last year. And a recent survey of students by Lucie Lapovsky, an economist at Mercy College, found that only 1 percent of students got accepted from the waiting list to their first-choice school.

The recession is, if anything, worsening the odds for those hoping for a classroom seat at the most prestigious schools. Yale, MIT, and several other highly selective colleges with very generous financial aid policies were so swamped by record numbers of highly motivated applicants that they accepted fewer students and put fewer on their waiting lists this spring than last year.

But colleges that don't have the luxury of guaranteeing that needy students will get scholarships, or that serve as second choices on students' wish lists, say they have to protect themselves with bigger wait lists. Even North Carolina State University, where annual tuition is a comparatively affordable $5,300, padded its waiting list by 300 students this year, bringing the total to 1,500. "Community colleges are much less expensive, so people who might be coming to us may be staying home," says Thomas Griffin, N.C. State's director of undergraduate admissions. That fear of having students "melt" away to cheaper schools is also a key reason the University of Texas established its first-ever wait list this year.

As a highly ranked public university, the University of Washington was so concerned that bargain-seeking applicants would choose it this year that the school accepted about 1,000 fewer students this spring. Instead, it beefed up its wait list by 1,000 to a total of about 2,500 students, says UW Director of Admissions Philip Ballinger. The only way he'll be able to admit many of those students—who would most likely have been admitted last year—is if a significant number of the regularly admitted students opt for some other school. "We can't predict the future," he says.

The uncertainty is even greater at more expensive schools. Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where annual tuition runs about $40,000, says one reason he increased the number of wait-listed students by about 10 percent to around 500 this spring is that surveys showed more than a quarter of all admitted students planned to send deposits to at least two colleges this year.