For those who love academic soap opera the gift that keeps on giving is this summer’s forced resignation and subsequent reinstatement of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. The crisis was the lead story in last week’s New York Times Magazine, several days after the Washington Post published an article about the release of hundreds of pages of additional e-mails from members of the University’s Board of Visitors.

Despite all the media coverage, a number of interesting questions remain unanswered.  Will the PR debacle have lasting impact on U.Va? Can the President, Board, and university community forgive, or even forget?  Why would Sullivan agree to return as President when she could have parlayed the drama into a book and Lifetime movie deal?

How much influence should donors at public institutions have at a time when public funding is diminishing? Was the attempt to oust Sullivan after only two years a coup perpetrated by a small circle of Board members and donors hoping to impose their business world-view on the University, or is the economic model underlying higher education fundamentally flawed and no longer sustainable?  Are strategic planning and incremental change outdated concepts?

While the issues ostensibly dividing the Board and President Sullivan were on-line education and the pace of change in higher education, two issues related to college admissions showed up on the periphery.  The string of e-mails between Board Rector Helen Dragas and Vice-Rector Mark Kington in the days leading up to Sullivan’s resignation included a reference to a June 1 article from Inside Higher Education announcing Wesleyan University’s decision to end its need-blind admissions policy.  I will discuss the need-blind issue in a separate post.

The other issue arose in an op-ed written by U.Va. alumnus Paul Tudor Jones II in the June 17 issue of the Charlottesville Daily Progress.  There has been speculation that Jones, a billionaire venture capitalist and major philanthropist for the University, was one of the behind-the-scenes players pushing for Sullivan to be replaced.  Not only was he the lead donor for U.Va.’s basketball arena (named for his father), but earlier this year he and his wife pledged $12 million for a yoga center (since repurposed as the Center for Contemplative Sciences) at U.Va.

In the op-ed Jones defended the Board’s actions as “aspiring to greatness.”  Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson (always an effective rhetorical strategy in Charlottesville), he stated that “it is time for a revolution” and cited three “alarming facts” as evidence of the need for dramatic change at U.Va.

The alarming fact that most distressed Jones was U.Va.’s admissions yield rate.  43% of those who are admitted to Virginia choose to enroll, a figure Jones contrasted with Harvard (80%), Stanford (73%), and Yale (66%).  What he found most troubling was that UNC-Chapel Hill’s yield is 13 points higher, leading U.Va. Dean of Admissions Greg Roberts to point out that evaluating yield requires context in a Letter to the Editor a week later.

The real question is how meaningful yield is.  What, if anything, does an institution’s yield tell you?

Being able to predict yield is certainly important for admissions offices that can’t afford to under-enroll (lack of revenue) or over-enroll (lack of housing), and it is not a simple calculation.  Yield can vary greatly among different segments of the applicant pool.  Early Decision applicants have a 100% yield, one of the reasons E.D. is so appealing to colleges.  For public institutions, in-state applicants have a higher yield than out-of-state applicants.  The yield for the academically-strongest applicants is generally lower because they have more options, whereas those fortunate to be admitted from the bottom of the pool almost always enroll.

Is yield rate a measure of institutional quality, though?  Certainly many colleges act as if it is, given that many of the admissions games being played today are attempts to manipulate yield, from heavy reliance on Early Decision to measuring demonstrated interest to using Wait Lists to fill up to 10% of the class in what functions as Early Decision-3.  Ten years ago the Wall Street Journal exposed colleges that routinely Wait-listed superbly-qualified applicants because of the assumption that those applicants wouldn’t enroll.  The fact that yield is so easy to manipulate calls its value as a metric into question.

Like its cousin, acceptance rate, yield exemplifies the myth that popularity=quality.  The more students who apply (or get turned down) and the higher the percentage of those admitted who choose to enroll, the better the school must be.  There are schools with higher yield rates than U.Va., though, that wouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath academically.  Higher yield is correlated with how much competition an institution faces.  Public institutions that are the only game in town within their state will have high yield numbers, while a lower yield rate might actually be an indication that a school has moved into a higher tier of competition.

Yield may be the kind of easy-to-understand metric that Board members from corporate backgrounds love, but it’s ultimately meaningless.  Or am I missing something?

Yield sign by Carl Puentes Photography