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It's White-Knuckle Time for College Officials Too

Estimating how many accepted students will enroll poses a math test no dean wants to fail.

April 27, 2006|Stuart Silverstein and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

College-bound high school seniors have fretted for months about which four-year schools will accept them. Now it is the admissions officers' turn to sweat.

Although colleges have gotten more sophisticated in predicting how many of the applicants they admit will show up in the fall, administrators endure high anxiety until just after May 1, the commitment deadline for incoming freshmen at many schools.

When a college's enrollment falls short -- costing the school needed revenue, not to mention academic talent -- "admissions deans are on the carpet," said Richard H. Shaw, Stanford University's dean of admission and financial aid. "Careers have been made and broken on this basis."

On the other hand, if too many freshmen decide to attend, the results often are overcrowded classrooms and a race to come up with enough housing. USC, blessed with a bumper crop of eager freshmen in 2001, scrambled to arrange for some to be put up in a nearby, university-owned hotel.

And forecasting incoming freshman classes has gotten harder, because the most academically competitive students are applying to more and more schools.

What's more, administrators at four-year schools in Southern California and elsewhere worry each year about students being scared off at the eleventh hour by a natural disaster or an episode such as the violence that erupted in late April 1992, after the Rodney G. King verdicts.

"Every now and then, you wake up in the middle of the night and wonder, 'What's next?' " said Bruce Poch, dean of admissions at Pomona College.

After the riots of 1992, Poch said, he received calls from families from other parts of the country who complained, " 'We sent in the deposit. We want our money back. I don't want my kid going anywhere near Los Angeles.'

"Whatever predictors we had," Poch said, "got tossed out the window."

This year, admissions experts said, the outlook is particularly uncertain for New Orleans schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina and for Duke University, whose reputation has suffered amid news of an alleged rape of an exotic dancer by members of the school's lacrosse team.

To minimize unwelcome surprises, college administrators and their consultants have turned the calculating of yield rates -- the percentage of accepted students who enroll -- into something of a science.

It is a little-known fact of college admissions that schools typically accept many more students than they can take, knowing that most of them won't enroll. So they rely on their yield-rate predictions to decide how many students to admit.

For instance, schools such as UC Berkeley and UCLA have seen their yield rates hover at about 40% in recent years. As a result, they accept more than twice as many freshman as they can accommodate, on the assumption that more than half of those students will go elsewhere.

This year, UCLA has accepted 12,094 prospective freshmen for the fall and is aiming for a class of 4,625.

Thomas Lifka, UCLA's assistant vice chancellor for student academic services, said his campus and other large universities often have more flexibility with yield than their counterparts at other types of institutions.

Big research universities with lots of government funding lean less heavily on tuition for their operating budgets. Also, the sheer numbers of admitted students mean that being off by 100 or more in the yield is not a disaster.

That said, even at UCLA, admissions officers like to hit or come close to their yield targets, said Lifka, who oversees admissions. If fewer than expected students accept the offer, UCLA has another bit of built-in leeway: It still has time to admit more transfer students.

Likewise, at a big commuter school such as Cal State Northridge, precise yield rate predictions are somewhat less critical because most students live off campus. What's more, although the school's enrollment fell after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, in recent years the yield rate has been "very predictable," said Eric Forbes, director of admissions and records.

Still, he said, "We've always wondered about the 100-year flood -- what would happen if suddenly, for whatever reason, they all decided to come?"

For Occidental College, a liberal arts school in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles, pinpointing the likely yield rate is crucial. With the aim of filling a class of 450 freshmen for the fall, it accepted 2,191 students.

Occidental, a 1,850-student school whose small size gives it little margin for error, saw its yield rate fall to 21% for the current freshman class, down from 26% four years earlier.

At this time of year, "it's a waiting game," said Vince Cuseo, Occidental's dean of admission.

"You really do all you can over the course of April to accommodate the interests, the questions and the needs of prospective students and their parents, and then you sort of lie in wait until sometime after D-day," he said.

For Occidental and many schools, D-day is May 1, the deadline to postmark deposits for next fall's freshman class.

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