I used to have lunch almost every day with a group of faculty who were from the sciences, economics, and finance. Occasionally someone from English or Political Science would join the table, but the types of discussions that went on scared some people and seemed to repulse others. Although I’m a long way from Libertarian, I found the talks amusing and intellectually stimulating, and appreciated seeing how others view the world. It was Freakonomics before anyone had heard of Freakonomics, and I will never think of brown snakes in New Guinea the same way again.
One of the finance professors loved telling the story of his introductory course in Finance for beginning MBA students. He’d love to go over valuation of projects when there was a potential cost of human life with one alternative. Someone would invariably pop up with the observation, “But you can’t put a value on a human life.”
The answer was swift, in the form of an example: “Suppose we could develop a drug to save a thousand humans, but it would cost a million dollars. Should we do it?” The answer would come back immediately: “Of course we should.” Then, the professor would ask, “What if we could develop a drug to save just one person if it cost a trillion dollars. Should we do that?” To which the student would reply, “Probably not.” “So,” the professor would gloat, “maybe we can’t pin down the price of a human life , but we’ve just narrowed the possibilities.” The lesson: Everything has a monetary value in the world of finance. This is why, for instance, railroads won’t protect every rural crossing with gates; it’s actually cheaper to pay off the lawsuits when deaths happen than it is to construct crossing gates everywhere a track and a rural road intersect.
The faculty were naturally interested in my work, and one day I pondered about calculating the value of a rejected application for admission. It’s clear that it’s worth something: The more you reject, the greater the public seems to value what you offer; the more demand for what you offer, the higher the price you can charge. And this is before we calculate the other benefits of selectivity. Of course, there is frequently a cost to generating more applications so you can reject more students, but this is always a factor in the discussion.
I still wonder.
Part of what I do is to collect data from a group of about 30 other colleges and universities each month. After having done this a while, you notice that applications at one institution can swing wildly from one year to the next. Take a look for instance, at the most recent month’s report, made anonymous and sorted randomly. This shows the increase in one year, measured at January 1, for freshmen for the upcoming fall term:
Pretty wild, huh? We all read these reports with a grain of salt. Some colleges had a weak year last year, so an increase can mean things are just returning to normal. Some have special missions that means their markets fluctuate quickly. Others had great years last year, and are just coming back down to earth. But more often than not, colleges are using artificial means to generate large numbers of phantom or “soft” applications. If you’re a high school counselor, you may know some of these tactics as Fast Apps, Snap Apps, VIP Apps, or you may know them by some other name. Essentially, they make it easier and faster to apply. More important, they make it easy for colleges to appear to be more selective than they really are. (For the record, we at DePaul don’t do use any of those techniques, although we are a member of The Common Application, and have seen increases in applications since we joined.)
As has been pointed out, sometimes students apply just because they can, not because they want to. And that’s the rub for me: While I believe we should make it easier to apply to college (think back to typing apps for each college on an IBM Selectric, or filling them out by hand), I don’t believe applying to college should be like an impulse purchase of chewing gum in the grocery store checkout aisle.
So, I read with interest this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Boston College’s dramatic drop in applications this year. The reason cited? They made it harder to apply, by adding a specific essay prompt to the application. Applications fell by 26%, from about 34,000 to 25,000.
In many ways, this is good: Those who do apply will be far more serious about BC, I’m sure, and yield will likely go up. But in the end, so will admit rates. And we all know that the whole industry of evaluating colleges and universities is based mostly on inputs, including selectivity.
You see the problem? BC will admit a lower number, but probably a higher percentage of applications. They’ll spend less time evaluating applications from students with lower affinity in the first place, and more time on students with more interest. This is good, right? Right?
Will the fact that BC’s admit rate is going up cause students to not apply for admission next year because they tie the perception of quality to the often-times manipulated statistic of admission rates? Or will the perception (and I stress “perception”) that BC is now slightly easier to get into actually drive more students to apply next year: Students who in previous years might have thought they didn’t have a chance?
We’ll see. The extent to which a prominent, non HYP university can make a move like this and pull it off is speculative. I wish BC a great deal of luck. Ultimately, I hope to find out the value of a rejected application, or more precisely, the value of not rejecting applications.