College Admissions: Watch Those Yields

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that -- no surprise -- the depressing economy has made its mark in college admissions offices. Applications at many smaller-name private schools are down, while more students applied to some big public universities, where in-state tuition might provide a better value for cash-strapped families.

The key number to watch for this spring is yield. That's the percentage of students who get into a college who actually promise to enroll. In an iffy economy, that number looks like more of a moving target than usual. A family's financial situation could change radically even between submitting an application and getting the acceptance. A student the staff feels confident will enroll, might take a spot somewhere cheaper. That means admissions' officials are likely to use waiting lists more than usual, to try to hit that magic enrollment target.

What does that mean for you, if you are a high school senior? My prediction is that the real winners could be those borderline candidates to private schools outside the top tier. The kind of kid who might be waitlisted at a Bucknell or a Dickinson (two of the schools mentioned in the Chronicle), will probably have a better shot at getting off that list than they might have in more stable years. (Ivy League and similar schools seem more impervious to these fluctuations — as people will often continue to fork out for the biggest names.) The key is to hang tight — and keep your grades up during the spring. Spots could also open up later than usual — even in the late summer, if continuing layoffs force families to pull their kids out of that entering class. Sadly, sometimes one person's misfortune is another's blessing.