Is Yield Protection Real?


Around this time of year, high school seniors conduct post-mortems on their college applications, trying to make sense of the increasingly unpredictable and seemingly capricious nature of undergraduate admissions.

As students discuss their results on social media and in forums such as Reddit, they’ll invariably wonder why they didn’t get admitted to a school considered a target, or even a safety, while getting into more selective colleges.

They often attribute it to yield protection. Is that simply sour grapes, or is this a real phenomenon practiced by college admissions offices?

Why Is Yield Important?

In the world of college admissions, two metrics indicate popularity. One is the number of applicants, particularly in relation to the number of available spots. That, of course, dictates the acceptance rate.

But how many accepted students actually decide to attend? That’s yield.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the average yield rate for four-year colleges is 30%. This means 2 in 3 accepted students choose to enroll elsewhere.

That’s not entirely surprising given the rising number of applications students are submitting. More applications mean more acceptances, generally speaking, and a student can commit to only one college.

At the high end, yield rates can reach 70% or more. Harvard’s rate over the past decade has ranged from 80-85%. Last year, Stanford’s yield was about 81%.

But rates can fluctuate considerably from year to year. For the class of 2023, the University of Pennsylvania’s yield was about 70%. The following year, it plummeted to 61%, rebounding with a rate of 73% for the class of 2025.

Even prestigious, highly selective institutions can have relatively low yield rates. Last year, Amherst College’s yield was 39%.

Why is yield important? It’s no longer a consideration in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, which dropped the metric from its formula in 2003. So what’s the big deal about yield?

It’s mostly about predictability, or lack thereof.

If everyone you admit says yes, then you know the class you envisioned is coming, Jayson Weingarten, a college admissions consultant with Ivy Coach and a former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), told BestColleges.

Maria Laskaris, a former dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College who’s now a consultant with Top Tier Admissions, agrees.

Nobody likes volatility, she told BestColleges. Everybody wants the admissions process to wrap up pretty neatly. Everybody wants to land the kids they’ve selected so that their class comes in more or less intact around the first of May and you can put that group to bed and move on to other things.

Various Forms of Yield Protection

It’s not surprising, then, that colleges remain mindful of yield and implement ways to strengthen it.

For some, that begins with early admissions programs, especially Early Decision (ED), which, unlike Early Action, is binding, meaning students must commit to attend if offered a spot. In theory, every student admitted through ED represents 100% yield.

Many selective colleges fill more than half of their entering class through early admissions, including Early Action. Drawn by higher acceptance rates (though this stat can be misleading given that recruited athletes are included in those figures), students are applying early in ever-greater numbers.

It’s also an opportunity for students to demonstrate their interest in one college, essentially naming it their top choice.

Universities are guaranteed that students are going to be in love [with your school], that it’s their first choice, and it’s going to lead to incredible school spirit, Weingarten said. And when half of the class has yielded at 100%, that’s going to help boost your overall yield.

Weingarten added that having happier students leads to better retention and graduation rates, important “key performance indicators” for universities. He also suggested there’s a bit of vanity involved.

All else being equal, wouldn’t you rather have the student who wants to be at your campus, who loves you the most? he said. These colleges are very petty. They want to be loved.

When enough students decline admission offers, it’s back to the drawing board, Weingarten said. In this case, that drawing board is the waitlist, the “maybe” of college admissions.

Knowing that plenty of students will decline admissions offers and that yield rates can fluctuate year to year, colleges place a reserve of students on waitlists while the regular-decision admits make their choices.

Nationwide, the acceptance rate off waitlists is 39%, but at highly selective colleges with strong yields, that figure can reach as low as zero percent.

Here again, rates can vary over time. For its class of 2025, Penn took 16.64% off the waitlist. For its class of 2023, it took 0.35%.

But just how does the waitlist affect yield?

The final yield figure will reflect the percentage of admission offers resulting in matriculation, including from the “maybe” pool of waitlisted students. If a university considers an applicant suitable for admission but doubts their intent to accept an offer, it might offer them a spot on the waitlist instead of “wasting” an acceptance on someone likely to go elsewhere.

From there, it’s up to the student to demonstrate intent, following up with a strong statement of continued interest.

There are plenty of times the admissions committee was like, Let’s put the student on the waitlist and see if they really want to come, Weingarten said. That’s code word for yield protection.

Naturally, students can write several love letters to the various colleges that waitlisted them, all promising to attend if admitted. Weingarten calls this the Mad Lib approach, where students replace [college name] and insert [professor’s name] in essentially the same statement.

When you’re an admissions officer reading tens of thousands of applications a year, you can tell when someone put in the work and when someone is just bullshitting, he said.

Laskaris said she’s seeing fewer waitlisted students receiving offers, chalking it up to better data mining tools that can help predict student interest based on demographics and related factors, along with behavior patterns throughout the admissions cycle.

I think it speaks to more sophistication around how we use data to predict [behavior], she said. You know who’s going to enroll if admitted.

Another consideration comes into play when colleges evaluate waitlisted students: money. Even universities that claim to be “need-blind” can become “need-aware” with waitlists. Waitlisted students who say they don’t require aid might have a better chance of receiving an offer.

If you need financial aid, that would be a reason to not be admitted off the waitlist, Laskaris said, noting that decisions often come down to budgets and how much financial aid money is available after the regular decision round is complete.

If they come in below budget, then they can start to take students who do need financial assistance off the waitlist, Weingarten explained.

The ‘Tufts Syndrome’ Form of Yield Protection

Such behind-the-scenes manifestations of yield protection might not leap to mind for the typical college applicant for whom confusion sets in when an expected offer isn’t forthcoming.

The more obvious conclusion is that the student was “too good” for the school in question. That interpretation is known as Tufts Syndrome, named for the private university in Massachusetts that, for a time, purportedly rejected strong applicants it believed were destined for the Ivy League and similar colleges.

If Tufts believed an applicant would be admitted to, say, Brown and Yale, it would turn them down, protecting its yield while leaving that student rather bewildered. Or so goes the theory.

Does this really happen behind closed admissions doors? Yes and no.

Will the average admissions officer mention yield protection? No, Weingarten said… . But they’re basically talking about yield protection without using those words when they say, Hey, I don’t think [an applicant] seems to really love us.

Laskaris says yield protection is definitely alive and well at some schools. She cited an example of a student she counseled who was admitted to all the Ivies he applied to, along with Georgetown, but received only a guaranteed transfer offer from Boston University (whereby the student is guaranteed transfer admission in the future assuming a certain level of academic performance).

In other words, he wasn’t accepted.

[Boston University] was obviously looking at this kid and saying, There’s no way he’s going to accept an offer if we admit him because his academic metrics and everything else about him suggest he’s going to be competitive at a much more selective school, Laskaris said. So they said, Sure, we’d love to have you, but you can get a guaranteed transfer versus us wasting an admit on you.

Yet the decision doesn’t always come down to academic performance and other earned accolades. Sometimes it’s just a matter of fit. Students check various boxes, figuratively speaking, for geographic and gender diversity, intended majors, and extracurricular interests such as music and athletics, among other considerations. With all else equal, students who fill certain criteria better than others will get the nod.

There are a lot of other factors that have nothing to do with the student or their credentials, Laskaris said, and that have everything to do with how the college is assembling their class.

That’s why someone might get into Yale and not Georgetown, Stanford and not Vanderbilt.

Consider, too, that today’s hypercompetitive admissions environment makes it all but impossible for universities to expect even the most talented students will gain admission to top schools.

A generation ago, Tufts might have assumed an outstanding applicant would be admitted to Harvard or Princeton. Now, with acceptance rates in the low single digits at top schools, it can no longer make this assumption.

And with Tufts accepting only 10% of applicants, it can hardly be considered a “safety” for Ivy wannabes.

So for students wondering why one college said yes while others said no, the simple answer is that they’re part of a complicated, unpredictable process that grows ever more competitive and confusing with each admissions cycle.

Yield protection is just part of the game.

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