College rankings to drop 'yield'
By Jay Mathews
After years of being blamed for colleges' feverish competition to sign up their best applicants, the editors of U.S. News & World Report have decided to stop counting the success of such campaigns in their influential ranking of "America's Best Colleges."
U.S. News Executive Editor Brian Kelly said the new rankings, due Aug. 25, will no longer include a measure called "yield" the percentage of students who accept each college's offers of admission. The college ranking issue, which began in 1983, is one of the magazine's best sellers and fuels other profitable U.S. News college guide enterprises.
Given the power of the U.S. News ratings, which have led some parents to refuse even to visit low-ranked schools, college admissions experts say the magazine's decision may have a significant effect on the debate over programs that accept applicants before Christmas of their senior year in high school.
These early decision programs, popular with the most selective colleges, raise yield because every student admitted this way promises to attend that school.
Critics say this forces high-schoolers to make a choice before they have had time to consider all of their options.
Low-income students, including many minorities, find it difficult to participate because they need to wait to see which school will give them the most financial aid.
Educators also have complained that the emphasis on yield has turned honorable college administrators into hucksters each April as they throw big weekend parties to persuade admitted students to choose their school.
Other yield-enhancing recruitment activities include warm letters from alumni, get-acquainted parties, negative whispers about other schools, meetings with famous faculty and near-promises of admission that arrive long before the official notification date.
Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University, has called this "the mania for yield."
Experts say schools that persuade most of their admitted students to attend Harvard leads the nation with a yield of about 80 percent are like crowded upscale restaurants. The fact that so many customers want to go there makes them even more desirable.
"In the minds of many 18-year-olds and their parents, it assists in producing a bandwagon, sought-after quality mind-set that can have elements of truth to it," said Mary Ann Willis, a college counselor at Bayside Academy in Daphne, Ala.
Since yield "seems to be a figure that schools have tried to manipulate to the detriment of students, but not, in fact, to the true benefit of their rankings we figured we might as well just drop it," said Sara Sklaroff, U.S. News education and culture editor.
Sklaroff said that view was buttressed by the fact that yield accounted for only 1 1/2 percent of a school's ranking.
Some college officials applauded the move.
"Neither selectivity nor yield is necessarily indicative of quality in higher education," said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admission at Boston College, which does not have a binding early decision program. "By eliminating yield in identifying America's best colleges, U.S. News is acknowledging this point. I hope families approaching the college admission process recognize this as well. They should not be seeking the most selective or prestigious school they can find, but the one that best suits their academic interests, ability and personality."
Many college administrators, however, say yield is a useful statistical tool that they will not discard no matter what U.S. News does.
"Yield represents who really wants you, and those places with high yields should be commended," said W. Kent Barnds, dean of admissions and enrollment management at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. "Additionally, I believe that a high yield represents that a college or university has admitted the 'right' kids those who are admissible and want to attend too."
Barnds said his school does not use early acceptance programs but has a yield of about 29 percent, "which is the strategic figure that we use in determining how many offers to make from our applicant pool."
John Blackburn, dean of admission at the University of Virginia, said, "Bragging rights will always be important, and yield will continue to be a factor which says which institution has greater drawing power than another."
He said he thought the change might weaken the arguments for early decision programs and lead more schools to adopt programs that admit students early but do not require them to accept an offer until they see who else takes them in April.