A couple of weeks ago I was on a panel at the annual meeting of the Deans and Directors of Admission for the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia.  During the Q and A, a Director of Admission wondered if any of the school counselors on the panel were seeing a trend of students applying to fewer colleges, as applications were down 9% at his institution. 

I gave him a three-part answer.  First, I don’t see any evidence that my students are applying to more or fewer colleges, but it is also the case that my office has worked hard to encourage students to apply more thoughtfully rather than just applying more.  Second, I’m not convinced that having fewer applications is necessarily a bad thing.  Third, and perhaps most significant, he is one of only a handful of college admission reps in my 30 year career to have, or at least admit, anything other than a record admissions year.

Within a couple of days came the news that two more colleges, York College of Pennsylvania and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, had been moved into the “Unranked” category in the U.S. News college rankings due to having submitted inflated data.  I have previously written ad nauseum about misreporting data and also recommended that U.S. News place all colleges in the Unranked category, but one piece of the story caught my eye.

According to both U.S. News and Insidehighered.com, Mary Hardin-Baylor corrected data it had previously submitted regarding both the number of applicants and the number of students admitted for the 2011 entering class.  The corrected numbers change the percentage of applicants admitted from 27.4 to 89.1.

That is not a misprint.  Mary Hardin-Baylor’s acceptance rate was more than three times higher than originally reported, meaning that the university is closer to open enrollment than highly-selective. That’s hardly a slight adjustment or miscalculation, and there’s bound to be an interesting story there.  Unfortunately I don’t what it is, because Mary Hardin-Baylor did not respond to my questions, but I can only imagine the turmoil within the university community when the error was discovered. 

According to the Insidehighered story, a spokesman for Mary Hardin-Baylor stated that there was no intentional misrepresentation and that the university was “counting its applications in a different way” than that required by U.S. News, which relies on the Common Data Set definitions.

The phrase “counting its applications in a different way” is intriguing. I assume that means Mary Hardin-Baylor was counting inquiries as applications, because the only other possible explanation is that it was adopting the creative accounting made famous by another Texas institution, Enron.

I don’t believe for a second that Mary Hardin-Baylor is the only college or university “counting its applications in a different way.”  Several years ago my office received a request for a transcript in February from a college for one of my seniors whose application was incomplete.  We hadn’t sent a transcript because we didn’t know he had applied—and, as it turned out, neither did he.  He had visited the school in question the previous summer and filled out a card during an information session, and obviously the school was considering that an application.

It doesn’t take much sleuthing to find other potential examples of “counting in a different way.”  The most recent editions I have of U.S. News’s “America’s Best Colleges” are from 2012 and 2009, and I looked at those issues to check Mary Hardin-Baylor’s numbers.  The 2009 book shows UMHB with 1258 applications and 962 acceptances, while 2012 shows 8323 applications and 3114 acceptances.  Either Mary Hardin-Baylor experienced a 600% increase in apps over that span or it started counting differently.

Even more interesting was that I found two other institutions “counting in a different way.”  I won’t name them, but both are rural regional institutions, and so I was surprised that one accepted only 10% of applicants and the other 7%.  One of them has a long history of being unbelievably selective, and from looking at its enrollment and its admission numbers it is clear that it is counting acceptances “in a different way,” such that only students who enroll receive acceptances.  If a cursory glance at those numbers arouses my suspicions, I wonder why they don’t arouse U.S. News’s.  Is it too trusting or too lazy to verify?

The bigger question is, Is more better?  That could easily be a topic for one of the ads featuring an adult asking four children about whether bigger and faster is better.  I remember the ads but have no idea what they’re selling.  Is having more applications better?

The conventional wisdom has been yes.  One of the unexamined myths of college admissions is that selectivity=quality, and that is why so many colleges go to great lengths to increase application numbers.  Several years ago a friend of mine became the Vice President and Dean of Enrollment at a small liberal-arts college, the kind of place that is the backbone of America’s higher-education system, a solid school academically that admitted 75-80% of its applicants.  The first thing he did was move to a two-part application, with the first part being basic information (and the application fee).  Part 2, which includes the more substantial information, is sent once Part 1 is received.  The first part  counts as the application, and because many students never complete the second part, within a year the institution’s acceptance rate was cut nearly in half.  But is it a better (or even different) institution?  The same argument can be made with colleges that have adopted “snap” (or a word that rhymes with snap) apps to increase numbers.  Is there a difference between increasing number of apps and increasing number of serious applicants?

It is important to affirm and recognize those who are attempting to maintain sanity in the admissions process, and earlier this year the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS) sent a letter of commendation to John Mahoney and his staff at Boston College.  Concerned about rising numbers of applications, BC added a supplemental essay last year.  The topics are substantive and require both thought and serious interest, and they support the belief that applying to college should be a Goldilocks process—neither too easy nor too hard.  The supplemental essay had more impact than expected, with applications dropping 26%, and there was undoubtedly consternation among those who measure success by rising application numbers, but I applaud BC and other institutions that are fighting the prevailing wisdom about increasing application numbers.  It’s time to count (measure success) in a different way.