Applicant numbers, selectivity, yield: Which metrics matter most in admissions?

All metrics have their pros and cons

High applicant numbers may grab headlines, but is that the best way to measure your admissions success? It's a complex and hotly debated subject; here's what two experts have to say about the pros and cons of common enrollment metrics.

Meredith Twombly, the dean of enrollment and retention at Hampshire College, shares that when her school added an essay question to its application, the number of applicants fell sharply. She argues that this was actually a good thing, and says that those who did not complete the application were those who were less engaged in Hampshire.

On the flip side, offering a simple, one-click application can boost applicant numbers, which can help colleges with another metric: selectivity rates. Selectivity is an important measure for some colleges because it can improve their position on the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

"At many colleges, the increase in applications is certainly more noise than signal," Peter Farrell, managing director and senior principal of enrollment services at Royall & Company, a division of EAB, told the EAB Daily Briefing in 2016. Farrell added that "Gimmicks that simply boost application numbers typically don't translate to sustainable strategies. While market pressures certainly demand growth in admit pools, how you engineer that growth has everything to do with your ultimate enrollment success."

Twombly writes that she prefers yield over other admissions metrics. She argues that yield is much less susceptible to rapid change and reveals "how engaging and therefore constructive our admission process is." Finally, she says that she looks to yield to indicate how well the school is communicating with and engaging prospective students.

But Farrell argues that yield can be as tricky a metric as application numbers and selectivity.

"Managing expectations around yield is always one of the toughest jobs on campus for an enrollment leader," he tells the EAB Daily Briefing. He notes that enrollment professionals face an increasingly competitive environment. If your peer institutions are upping their game, you are going to feel pressure to improve your own yield. Unfortunately, he says, if you realize you're missing your yield mark, it's probably too late in the game to do much about it.

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Another reason yield is slippery, he says, is that "the very students most colleges want to enroll more of," such as high-ability students, more diverse students, or students from particular geographic regions, "are the very students who have lower yields." He also says that these students are also the very students who are most likely to abandon an application that has too many hurdles.

Farrell says that Royall analysis of IPEDS data shows that colleges aiming to grow enrollment tend to be most successful when they can achieve roughly 10% growth in their pools of applications and admitted students (Twombly, The EvoLLLution, 3/1).

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