“Thank you for your patience while remaining on the wait list,” read the note, posted without fanfare to the MIT admissions portal earlier that day. “I’m writing to tell you that we will not be admitting anyone from our wait list this year, and therefore we are unable to offer you admission.” The post — sent out to hundreds of MIT hopefuls last May and reposted in full to popular subreddit r/ApplyingToCollege — is just one example of many such messages that sought-after colleges like MIT have increasingly turned to in recent years, often as they find themselves beset by more applicants and enrollees than they know how to handle.
Reed College finds itself in a similar predicament. According to the Common Data Set — a college statistics database available at reed.edu/ir/cds/cdsindex.html — Reed only admitted a single student from its waitlist to the class of 2025, leaving 1,065 other hopefuls to face a presumably similar rejection letter. Yet, even with such a harsh cut, the college still enrolled a massive class of more than 500 — the largest in Reed’s history — who are now in their second year. Why?
The answer lies with the college’s yield — a statistic admissions professionals use to measure how many admitted students ultimately enroll. If a college has a consistently high yield, above 90%, say, they’ll only admit approximately the same number of students as they would like to enroll, expecting to get a yes from nearly every admit. If, on the other hand, a college has a very low yield — more like 10% — admitting only the intended class size would, statistically, lead to barely a handful of students showing up on campus in the fall. Instead such colleges often admit more students than they can actually serve, sometimes a lot more, on the assurance that only some of them will actually enroll.
This strategy is, of course, to quote Terry Pratchett, a bit like “being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.” But it’s how college admissions works in the United States, and Reed is no different. The college’s yield has been declining for the last decade, having held steady at around 30% from 2005 to 2011 before slowly dropping to 16% by 2021.
At this point, a reader might be forgiven for thinking that the abnormally large 2021-22 entering class (at 502 students, nearly 1.5 times Reed’s average class size of 366 between 2005 and 2020) was the result of an abnormal yield. But the Common Data Set suggests otherwise. As Reed’s yield has declined the number of students admitted each year has been increased to match, rising from 1,125 in 2012 to 3,071 in 2021, as shown right.
However, in the 2021-22 cycle, the increasing number of admitted students outpaced the decreasing yield rate. While Reed has consistently admitted additional students each year for about a decade now, the rate of change from each year to the next — seen left— has rarely crossed 200 and never exceeded 400. Yet between 2020 and 2021 that rate hit 680, with the college admitting 3,071 students to the fall ‘21 class compared to 2,391 the year prior. While the Office of Admissions was not able to provide comment in time for publication, this suggests that Reed’s Admissions predicted a major drop in the college’s yield. When there wasn’t one, with the 2021 rate of 16.35% remaining within 1 percentage point of 16, as it has since 2018, Admissions was left with far more enrollees than they expected.
What, if anything, can be learned from this? One lesson is certainly that predicting the future remains, as it always has been, impossible, and there is something unfair about expecting a college admissions department to try. Another, however, is that the college needs to be prepared for what are sure to be more surprises: That Reed’s yield has remained relatively consistent throughout a chaotic global pandemic is, in itself, an oddity worthy of note. That there can be no guarantee it will continue to do so is equally clear. In the meantime, all the college can do is ante up for another hand, and hope that next year’s admits avoid setting the record for largest class ever yet again.