Demystifying US admissions decisions through the lens of yield protection

By understanding the tactics universities employ, students can strategically craft their applications strategy

By Jackson Richard

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By rejecting overqualified applicants, many universities aim to simultaneously inflate yield metrics and deflate acceptance rates. Photo for illustrative purposes only. — File photo
By rejecting overqualified applicants, many universities aim to simultaneously inflate yield metrics and deflate acceptance rates. Photo for illustrative purposes only. — File photo

Published: Tue 23 Apr 2024, 9:07 PM

Last updated: Wed 24 Apr 2024, 3:12 PM

A star student from a local Dubai high school is shockingly rejected from Purdue...and accepted into Brown? Another is rejected from Northeastern...only to be accepted into Columbia? Those who are familiar with the hyper-competitive landscape of admission into elite universities in the US would likely find these results absurd, defying logic itself, and yet they represent a very real and increasingly prevalent trend known as “yield protection,” which was particularly pronounced this last application cycle.

Yield protection operates as a shield for many selective universities aiming to maintain their coveted status in the academic hierarchy, one determined largely by rankings published by USNews, QS World, and Forbes, among other publications. The practice, though superficially perplexing, becomes clearer upon understanding its underlying mechanism: the manipulation of the underlying metrics that determine institutional rankings—and thus prestige.

Yield in college admissions is defined as the percentage of students who enroll in a university after securing admission. If a large volume of students who are accepted into a particular university turn down offers of admission, it would stand to reason that this institution lacks the draw necessary to attract the world’s best and brightest. Unsurprisingly, rankings agencies feel the same. As such, they heavily consider this metric, referred to as “yield,” when determining universities’ standings on their hugely influential annual “top universities” lists.

By rejecting overqualified applicants, many universities aim to simultaneously inflate yield metrics and deflate acceptance rates, thereby enhancing their perceived exclusivity and desirability in national and international rankings. While this may seem like a counterintuitive approach to recruitment, particularly given the caliber of candidates often turned away, it underscores the extent to which colleges are willing to “game” statistics in order to maintain their outward appearances of exclusivity.

A clear example of this in recent years has been Northeastern University, which rose from a 20% acceptance rate “target” university — one which most strong students could reliably receive an acceptance — into a 6.8% acceptance rate juggernaut with wildly unreliable results for top performers. For reference, it is currently statistically more difficult to secure an acceptance offer from Northeastern (alongside numerous other non-Ivy universities like Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Rice) than it was to get into Harvard as recently as 2010! To maintain such a low acceptance rate, Northeastern—and other universities like it—turned down numerous overqualified candidates during the Regular Decision round in favor of more average students who applied via the Early Decision route knowing that the latter group would almost certainly attend the school if accepted, as Early Decision plans are binding.

For applicants, the implications of yield protection are manifold. In a landscape where narrow margins in acceptance rates serve as barometers of institutional prestige, the risk of being overlooked or dismissed by target and safety-tier universities is greater than ever. However, armed with the knowledge of how yield protection operates, students can adopt a strategic approach to their college search. By including a mix of reach, target, and safety schools—each with their own unique merits and opportunities—students can hedge their bets against the growing unpredictability of admissions.

Furthermore, truly exceptional students with flawless performance on high school examinations and standardized tests need not to get disheartened by potentially mixed results at lower and mid-tier universities. Instead, many may opt to consider applying to proportionally more “reach” schools, along with a diverse selection of target and safety schools known for giving significant merit scholarships to star students rather than rejecting them for yield retention.

By understanding the tactics universities employ, and the metrics-based outcomes they focus on, students can strategically craft their applications strategy to maximize their chances of landing top acceptances while ensuring that they have a range of options from which to choose come decision day on May 1st. While the changing landscape of US admissions presents new challenges, underscored by a growing prevalence of esoteric strategies like yield protection, it also provides well-informed students with additional advantages to leverage over their competition.

The writer is a Senior Educational Consultant at Hale Education Group in Dubai.

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