What Does It Mean To Be Wait Listed?

students standing in line representing the turth about college waitlists

For a certain group of high school seniors, April is the cruelest month. Not for any of T.S. Elliot’s reasons but because they have been wait listed at their dream college. Many will spend the month frantically tracking down any and all possibilities for getting off the waitlist. They will agonize over their unknown chances of actually getting accepted. However, come May 1st, unless they still believe in the tooth fairy, they will go ahead and send in their deposit to one of the schools that they did get into and hope for better news in the coming days.

These students and their families need to keep in mind that being wait listed isn’t their last chance to grasp their college dreams. The college waitlist exists as a business tool for colleges to make sure they fill their seats with paying students every fall. Everything about it is a reminder that colleges operate in a marketplace with an overwhelming information advantage.

Wait Listed? Be Prepared to Pay

What am I talking about? Think about those people on standby at the airport gate waiting for a seat to open up. Do you think they’re going to be getting the discounted ticket value paid by the person who didn’t show up? Nope. They’re going to be paying the full-fare.

If colleges were airlines, passengers trying to fly TCU would know not to expect any merit aid:

If I’m admitted from the waitlist, will I be eligible for academic scholarship?
Not likely. By the time we offer admission to students from the waitlist we have exhausted our pool of academic scholarship dollars.

The same is true of Vanderbilt where they inform waitlisted students:

If I am admitted, will I still be eligible for financial aid?

Although we do reserve the right to be need-aware when admitting wait-listed students, those who are admitted and have applied for need-based aid will still receive 100% of their families’ demonstrated need, completely loan free.  Students admitted off the wait list are not eligible for merit scholarships.

Students and family need to pay close attention to the “need-aware” sentence as well. Since the school is promising to meet 100% of need of any admitted students, they may look more favorably upon students who aren’t going to cost them as much.

Colorado College pretty much does the same thing:  “We will do our best to fund students admitted from the waiting list. However, we are not need-blind during this process. Financial aid will be determined by the availability of funds, though we will still need the demonstrated need of any admitted student.”

Keep in mind that there’s a good chance you ended up wait listed to begin with because you had significant financial need. Elizabeth Houston at Oberlin explains that:

We do accept some students on the edge of admissibility because they can contribute to the costs of an Oberlin education. On the other hand, we invariably find ourselves waitlisting or denying some students each year who are otherwise well-qualified and appealing, due to a high level of financial need.

At least Oberlin is being honest. While going through different college websites, I frequently found a version of Johns Hopkins University:

If I am accepted off the wait list and I applied for financial aid, will I receive any financial assistance?

If you completed your financial aid application by the deadline and are admitted off of the wait list, you will receive financial aid information with your admissions decision.

Doesn’t exactly answer the question, does it?

Basically, if you get off the waitlist, expect to pay. And if you can’t afford to pay, don’t expect to get off of the waitlist.

Another Sign College Admissions Is a Business

Don’t forget that you’re going to be sacrificing the deposit you made at your backup school. Granted, if you can afford to come off of the waitlist, you can probably bear the loss of the deposit. However, the fact that deposits at many schools aren’t trivial is another indicator of the business nature of college admissions and the waitlist.

For example, backing out of Notre Dame will cost you $500, Tufts-$600. Carnegie Mellon requires an $800 deposit while Georgetown asks a whopping $900 for an enrollment deposit.

Before you attribute these numbers to the general high cost of college, think again. Princeton, Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Stanford don’t list an deposit requirement. Now why do you think that is?

The reality is that places like Georgetown know that they’re likely to be dumped for the chance to go to Harvard. That’s why they’re going to make it as painful for students to leave and as profitable for them when students do leave.

The really interesting part is how many schools don’t list the enrollment deposits on their websites. I only found it for some schools by going to CollegeView. Again, why do you think that is?

What Else Are They Not Telling You?

Every college waitlist information page I checked stated that they did not rank applicants on the waitlist. How convenient. So every student has just as good of a chance to get off of the list as any other? That’s hard to believe.

I’m pretty sure that by May 1, colleges have decided who they are going to offer spots and in what order. They may not have ranked the list when they initially put people on the list, but they would have had to by the time they start offering positions.

Yet, they can’t seem to bring themselves to tell the students that they are at the bottom of the list.  They can tell students that they only have 72 hours, or sometimes less, to decide if they want the spot once offered. And it may or may not include the financial aid award. But as I stated earlier, you really shouldn’t be expecting much financial help anyway.

If money isn’t an issue, go ahead and accept a position on the waitlist and hope for better news. But the reality is the college waitlist is a reminder that higher education is a business. No matter how worthy the purpose of higher education, colleges have to fill seats come September and will act in their best financial interests. Students would do well to follow their example and skip the waitlist and focus on their already available, and hopefully, more affordable options.

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