Higher Ed Cop Out #4

February 10, 2009 | Blog

Today’s topic: Defining a college’s “popularity” by its admissions yield.

I know, it’s fun to try and assign schools and colleges a status according to how cool and popular they are– it’s just like the little social games we play in grade school.

But a common method for assessing the popularity of colleges– by using the admissions yield (% of accepted applicants who enroll), is just plain stupid.

This is practice employed not only by popular publications like the U.S. News and World Report but also by many academic researchers. Take this list of the most popular national universities:

1. Harvard
2. Brigham Young
3. University of Nebraska-Lincoln
4. Stanford
5. MIT
6. Yale
7. Princeton
8. U. Pennsylvania
9. Yeshiva
10. U. Florida

This is silly. Here are just a sample of the myriad reasons why a college can have a high yield, for reasons having nothing to do with popularity:

1. A pool of applicants that didn’t apply to lots of colleges. Applications are expensive– each application carries a fee, and while waivers are available, many students don’t know about them.

2. A pool of less-qualified applicants– those that manage to get in have fewer options at other places.

3. Location. Is the college located near lots of other colleges, or in an area where a place-bound applicant pool would have few alternatives? (notice the presence of University of Nebraska, Lincoln for example)

4. Admissions criteria. Desire to attend a college, a sense of “match”, if used in deciding who to admit, will maximize yield. This doesn’t mean the school is more popular, only that it admits students who like it more. (this is probably contributing to the ranking of the Ivies- above– these schools are inclined to admit those students who express a preference for their school over others- maybe because their parents are alums?)

5. Specialties of the college. If the college is among the only that offers a certain mission, it automatically makes it the school of choice for those that want that mission. That’s not popularity, it’s a niche. (witness Brigham Young and Yeshiva)

Instead of yield, how about considering the use of “revealed preference rankings” such as those proposed by Carolyn Hoxby and Christopher Avery?

Or, better yet– how about simply deciding that “popularity” isn’t a good reason to choose a college? Stop drinking the KoolAid folks….

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