Admissions & Student Aid

What Happens When a College Accepts Too Many Students?

August 01, 2017

Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
At the U. of California at Irvine, some newly admitted freshmen had their admissions offers revoked after the university discovered it had admitted too many students.

In May, the University of California at Irvine found itself in a tough spot: Some 7,100 incoming freshmen had accepted admission offers for the fall — 850 more than the university had expected.

Admissions yield rates have become increasingly unpredictable over the past decade, experts say, and the issue of over or under­enroll­ment isn’t limited to Irvine.

Approaches like Irvine's may disproportionately penalize low-income, first-generation students, some observers say.

But how Irvine managed the problem — rescinding acceptances from about 500 students just two months before the start of the fall term — was extraordinary.

Approaches like the one Irvine administrators decided on are more likely to disproportionately penalize low-income, first-generation students, some observers have pointed out.

With a hard-line approach to technical errors like late official transcripts, low-income and first-generation students are "absolutely" more likely to be disadvantaged, says Don Hossler, a former director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center who is now a senior scholar at the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice in the University of Southern California's school of education. "They just don’t know the rules of the game as well."

But Tom Vasich, a spokesman for Irvine, said the proportions of low-income and first-generation students in the group of students whose acceptances were withdrawn mirrored those of the overall incoming class, with about 46 percent first-generation and 30 percent low-income.

The advent of online applications, which make it easier for students to apply to more colleges, has made it much harder for a university to predict its yield rate — or the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll, said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

But even given the unpredictability of admissions, when a student accepts a college’s offer, it’s a "two-way contract," said Jim Jump, director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va., and a past president of NACAC. The Irvine campus maintains that it is simply holding students accountable to the terms of their conditional agreements, but Mr. Jump says colleges also have an obligation to hold up their end and provide a spot for students who have committed.

Many students who had their admission offers revoked said the reasons given were nitpicky or baseless, taking to Facebook and Reddit to air their grievances. Something as minor as listing a "technical education" class as a computer class on her application was enough for Julia Kim’s acceptance to be withdrawn, she told The Orange County Register. In Ms. Kim’s case, she didn’t want to wait to find out the result of her appeal and enrolled in Clark University, in Massachusetts, which had accepted her previously.

But many students aren’t lucky enough to have back-up options, Mr. Jump said.

In response to application errors, universities typically undertake lighter measures, like temporarily denying the student his or her position in a housing queue or class registration, said Mr. Hawkins.

Mr. Vasich, the Irvine spokesman, notes that the university has in place a rigorous appeals process, which it has sped up in the wake of its hundreds of admission withdrawals. "We don’t want to deny admission to a student for no fault of their own," he said. As of Monday, 117 appeals had been successful, he said.

No matter what, over­enroll­ment is an "ugly situation," Mr. Jump said.

Housing shortages tend to be the messiest issue to deal with when too many students accept offers, and academic offerings follow closely behind. Colleges will stuff three students in rooms built for two or rent out hotels or local apartments to accommodate unprecedented enrollment sizes. But, by and large, Mr. Jump said, universities will stretch themselves to accommodate the students they made offers to when enrollment hiccups occur.

When a student accepts a college's offer, it's a 'two-way contract,' says one admissions counselor. Colleges also have an obligation to hold up their end.

In response to the latest controversy, Irvine’s student government condemned the university’s approach, instead recommending that administrators defer the students to community college with the stipulation that they can transfer to the Irvine campus later. In general, deferred acceptances are a common method in higher education to manage over­enroll­ment.

Colleges have been forced to be creative with housing for other reasons: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University, in New Orleans, leased a cruise ship to provide living accommodations for hundreds of students and faculty and staff members who were displaced after the storm.

The University of California at Berkeley experiences chronic shortages of housing and academic facilities. To address this problem, over the years it has established and expanded its Fall Program for Freshmen, initially intended as something to do in the fall for students admitted to the spring semester (spring admission is a strategy to fill spots that empty in the spring when students graduate early or study abroad). The program exports students to classes in San Francisco or to an off-campus location in Berkeley for their first semester, before matriculating students in the spring. Newly admitted freshmen can also apply to study abroad, in London, for the fall semester, after completing a summer program at Berkeley, through the campus’s Global Edge program.

Irvine has scrambled to launch its own alternative programs to mitigate the housing shortage byproduct of over­enroll­ment this year. In May, administrators came up with the idea for an "Anteater Leadership Academy," a program offered to admitted, in-state students on a first-come, first-served basis. The program, which takes its name from the university’s mascot, targets middle-income commuter students, as participants cannot use campus housing (though the university offers a partnership with a local apartment complex).

The perks: Tuition is only $2,105 per quarter, about half of regular in-state tuition. The program boasts smaller class sizes and bonus leadership classes. The university is drawing on reserve funds to bankroll expenses not covered by tuition, though at this point the exact costs are unknown, said Gary Matkin, dean of Irvine’s division of continuing education. A little over 100 students so far have chosen the Anteater Leadership Academy.

Students who enroll in the program cannot receive need-based financial aid, Mr. Matkin said, because they are not matriculated in university, which houses the financial-aid process.

Sarah Eichhorn, a lecturer in mathematics, said that in its rush to alleviate the housing and enrollment problem, the campus is overlooking an equity and access problem, and offering a program with substantial benefits exclusively to middle and upper-class students who can afford it.

Mr. Matkin said that because the Anteater Leadership Academy is a pilot program, it’s not possible to offer it to everyone at this point.

Corrections (8/2/2017, 12:41 a.m.): This article originally identified Don Hossler as a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington. He has left that job for the University of Southern California. The article also misnamed an institution in New Orleans. It is Tulane University, not the University of Tulane. The article has been updated to reflect those corrections.