As California’s public universities prepare to break with tradition and make broad use of waiting lists in their admissions decisions this spring, high school counselors and even some university officials worry about the emotional toll on students.
For an applicant, getting onto a favorite school’s waiting list offers a glimmer of hope that a spot on campus might eventually open up. But because relatively few students ever make the jump from waiting list to enrollment, some experts say the lists merely increase anxiety and extend an already stressful time for college-bound high school seniors.
Concern about the lists has been rippling through California high schools since the University of California announced in January that for the first time, it will employ waiting lists extensively this spring for fall freshman applicants. Last week, officials specified that at least six of UC’s nine undergraduate campuses will use the lists. UCLA and UC Merced will not and UC Berkeley has yet to decide.
The state’s other public university, the Cal State system, said it too will expand its use of freshman waiting lists this year to include many of its 23 campuses and will place transfer students on some lists.
UC and Cal State admissions officials say that they need the lists as a tool to help them hit enrollment targets at a time when state budget reductions are forcing them to cut the number of new freshmen. As a result, thousands of students and their counselors will soon have to deal with a practice more commonly associated with selective private colleges. Many are not happy.
“It is such a tumultuous year for our kids already, with the budget cuts and announcements that UC and Cal State will be accepting fewer students. So to add the waiting lists right now feels so unstable, so unfair to the kids,” said Natalie Hamilton, a counselor at Irvine’s Northwood High School.
Hamilton said she worries that students put on UC or Cal State waiting lists will focus on the slim possibility that a higher-choice school will admit them, ignoring a school that already has. “They need to be able to move on and focus on the positive,” she said.
Brandi Bakewell, counselor at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, agreed. “The universities are doing the best they can, but I think it is going to create more anxiety for students and families,” she said. She too urged students to “go for the sure thing” and send an enrollment deposit to a school that accepted them even if they are on waiting lists elsewhere.
Colleges use waiting lists to achieve an admissions sweet spot: filling every open seat without overcrowding their classrooms and dorms. In general, colleges create three applicant groups. Those in the accepted or rejected categories are notified by early April, or sooner for many public universities. Those in the middle are invited to wait for spaces that might open in May, after accepted students send in deposits.
A survey last year by the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling confirmed that students should not pin too much hope on waiting lists. It found that about a third of all colleges use the lists and that 78% of selective colleges -- schools that accept fewer than half of applicants -- employ them. Of students who decided to stay on such lists, only about 30% on average nationally were offered enrollment, the survey showed. At selective schools, that figure was 13%.
At the handful of Cal State campuses that have used waiting lists in the past, the statistics are often grimmer.
San Diego State last year offered waiting list spots to 5,564 freshman applicants and 1,368 chose to stay on it. However, not one was offered admission. “We had no room left when all was said and done,” said Sandra Cook, the school’s assistant vice president for academic affairs.
To help implement large enrollment reductions when applications are at record highs, Cal State’s central administration has recommended that all its campuses prepare waiting lists this year, although some, including Cal State Northridge, say they don’t plan to use them. If more state money becomes available, more students on waiting lists will be offered enrollment, said Allison G. Jones, the Cal State system’s assistant vice chancellor for student academic support.
The UC system previously used the backup lists only in an experiment last year at UC Irvine. Their much wider use this year, officials said, will help UC achieve its goal of reducing fall’s total freshman enrollment to about 32,700, down about 1,500, or 4%, for a year when the number of applicants rose 2.4% to 100,320.
Susan Wilbur, UC director of undergraduate admissions, estimates that a total of several thousand applicants could be on lists established by at least six UC campuses and that some students might be offered a spot on more than one list by late March.
Any admissions offers from the lists will be made by June 1.
That may produce stress and “a certain amount of churning” if, for example, a student who sent an enrollment deposit to one UC campus is accepted from another’s list, Wilbur acknowledged.
If the student switched, he or she would forfeit the $100 enrollment deposit at the first campus.
But Wilbur said the lists will give some students a chance at a favorite campus. “In this way, we are extending this opportunity more broadly, and we think that’s a good thing,” she said.
Four-year-old UC Merced won’t participate because it has room for all its qualified applicants.
UCLA, which in recent years has received more applications than any other college in the nation, also won’t, because it long has met enrollment targets without one, said Vu Tran, UCLA undergraduate admissions director. “In addition, wait lists tend to increase the anxiety for prospective students and their families, something that we would like to minimize whenever possible,” he said.
UC officials say they are trying to ease the process.
At UC San Diego, admissions director Mae Brown said it would not be fair to keep waiting lists open into the summer, as some private universities do.
“Our intent is to notify them as early as possible in May so they can start summer vacation with a clear sense of where they are going to college,” she said.