How to assess a college's competitive attractiveness?
The question "Which are the best colleges?" should always be reframed as "Which are the best colleges for me?". The answer requires deeper investigation than just looking at numbers. But everyone loves rankings and comparisons, so which statistics to look at?
Acceptance rate is a common favorite, but a low acceptance rate may be an indication of a school’s elite qualities or just an artificially high volume of applications. Maybe yield rate is a better indicator, but it has its limitations. Or maybe we need a new way to look at this? So I did some research.
Yield represents the percentage of accepted students who enroll at a college. In theory, the higher the yield, the more attractive the school. Potentially these are first-choice schools where students are excited to say yes if accepted. Lower yield indicates that many students opt for a more appealing alternative, whether due to academic, social or financial fit. Lower yield may also imply that that the school was serving as a safety for applicants rather than as a serious contender.
But then how can the University of Alaska-Fairbanks have a higher yield rate than Yale or Princeton? How is it that BYU and Tennessee State join Alaska-Fairbanks in the top 10 national universities by yield, along with Harvard, Stanford, MIT and four other Ivies?
Looking at data from U.S. News for students accepted to matriculate in Fall 2014 (1), the average yield rate among national universities was 34 percent. That means on average, two of every three students accepted to a college chose to go elsewhere.
Only 25 universities had yields above 50%, predictably including all eight Ivies, MIT and Stanford but also 11 state universities such as New Mexico and North Dakota State.
For liberal arts colleges, yield is even lower at an average under 30 percent (2). The military academies rank at the top with a whopping 80-85% yield. Claremont McKenna is one of the few liberal arts colleges above 50% (and just barely, at 50.2%). Elite colleges like Williams, Amherst and Bowdoin are all under 50% yield, meaning that even at these super-selective schools more than half of accepted students choose to go elsewhere.
How to make sense of this? It’s likely that students applying to Alaska-Fairbanks or North Dakota State opt for their local state university for reasons of cost and proximity and don’t consider many other colleges. Or schools may be targeting a specific demographic – Tennessee State is a HBC, BYU has a strong religious affiliation, and the military academies attract those with a special motivation. Competition with other colleges is lower so yields are higher.
It’s a reminder that yield rate is not always an indicator of how elite or selective a college is, but rather how appealing that school is to its target applicant pool. When there is a supply of relatively similar schools to consider (even if high quality and in demand), yields narrow; when supply is more limited (like remote state universities or the military academies), the opposite is true.
What other dynamics impact yield rates? Many colleges have boosted application volume in order to tout a lower acceptance rate, and many students now routinely apply to ten or more schools. But while some are serious applicants, others are rounding out their college list with an easy push of the apply button. So while acceptance rates are dropping, yields are dropping with them. And even if a school generates more qualified candidates, the lucky student admitted to eight colleges can only go to one, again depressing yield. What colleges may gain in prestige from lower acceptance rates is partially offset by the suggestion from lower yields that a school has somehow become less attractive.
So is there a better indicator of a college’s “competitive attractiveness” than acceptance rate or yield? Jon Boeckenstedt , Associate Vice President of Undergraduate Enrollment Management at DePaul University, has introduced an interesting metric he calls the Draw Rate (3). He defines Draw Rate as Yield Rate divided by Acceptance Rate (Draw = Yield%/Accept%).
A selective college that attracts a large number of qualified applicants who are truly interested in what that school has to offer will have a high draw rate – low acceptance with high yield. A school that offers unique value, even with a high acceptance rate, will earn a relatively stronger draw rate. But one who’s only move is to artificially increase applications may see draw rate decline rather than improve. This helps to distinguish between colleges generating serious buyers vs. window-shoppers.
Mr. Boeckenstedt explains it this way: “A college can pretty easily manipulate admission rates if it wants to, by generating more applications from students who are either not likely to enroll, or not likely to be admitted. But as you do that, it becomes harder and harder to sort out the students who are more likely to enroll, and as a result, you have to admit many of them, which will depress the yield rate. “
Using the 2014 U.S. News admissions data, the overall draw rate is around 0.5, meaning that on average a school’s yield rate is half the acceptance rate (65% acceptance rate, 34% yield). I pointed out earlier that yield and acceptance rates are not always correlated. Acceptance rates for the seven elite national universities in the Top 10 chart above were in the ultra-competitive 5-10% range, but only 50-75% for the three other schools.
So let’s look again at those high-yield schools and now factor in draw rate. Stanford, Harvard and Yale all have draw rates over 10, as does the Naval Academy. BYU and Tennessee State are in the 1.0-1.5 range, while U Alaska is at 0.95.
That’s probably more in line with the actual market demand and competitive position of these schools.
So What Does This Tell Us?
With students now applying to ten or more schools, pushed by the unpredictability of admissions and facilitated by the Common App, it’s not surprising that yield rates are declining. It’s a competitive market for both applicants and institutions. Some colleges are trying to counter by emphasizing Early Decision as a way to lock in commitments and strengthen yields. Others, tired of being a safety net for students aiming higher, have moved to protect their yields by wait-listing qualified students who haven’t demonstrated interest or are otherwise judged likely to go elsewhere.
For students, the message is that just as acceptance rate can be a misleading statistic, the same is true for yield. In general it’s reasonable to assume that higher yield indicates a more attractive school. Yet yield rates for many terrific colleges may be (relatively) lower because of an abundance of similarly attractive schools, while yield for some less selective schools may be higher thanks to less competition for their specific applicant pool.
To get a real sense of the “competitive attractiveness” of a school , go beyond admit rate and yield, and look at Draw Rate as a helpful (and easy to calculate) metric.
1 National Universities Where Students Are Eager to Enroll U.S. News, January 25, 2016
2 Liberal Arts Colleges Where Students Are Eager to Enroll U.S. News, January 25, 2016
3 Yield Rates are Declining – Why?
Jon Boeckenstedt, published in Academic Impressions, May 11, 2016