Are college waitlists simply marketing tools of elite universities? Ryan Craig argues as much in a piece today for “Forbes” entitled “The Real Cruelty of College Admissions.” In fact, Mr. Craig writes, “The more elite the school, the less likely it is that a waitlist is anything other than a powerful branding tool, demonstrating the university’s strong appeal to thousands of expectant families each year.” Mr. Craig, of course, is not correct. Instead, he’s perpetuating a misconception about the highly selective college admissions process that only ends up making the process more stressful for students and their parents navigating its churning waters. We’ve got a very long line of students over the years who would raise their hands to object to Mr. Craig’s characterization of college waitlists as mere branding tools. And why? Because these students earned their way off these college waitlists. After being placed in college admissions limbo, they took the correct proactive action and earned admission to their dream schools. How could Mr. Craig tell these students that college waitlists are merely branding tools?
Colleges are Businesses and Waitlists are Good Business
It’s always important to keep in mind that colleges are businesses and, as such, they have every right to admit, deny, and waitlist as many students as they see fit. If a college chooses to maintain a waitlist of several hundred students, maybe it’s because they’re worried a high percentage of admitted students will choose not to matriculate. When so many students are applying for slots at their university, they’re in a position in which they shouldn’t have to worry if they can fill their class — thanks to the waitlist.
And what’s wrong with keeping a long waitlist? If a student doesn’t wish to stay on a waitlist, he or she has that right. That student can decline the option of being on the waitlist. It’s very much like when you go to a fancy restaurant. Maybe there’s a long line outside Barbuto in New York’s posh West Village. But you really want their roast chicken. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations. So you can either choose to tell the host or hostess that you wish to wait or you can choose not to — the option is yours and yours alone. But Barbuto shouldn’t be faulted for keeping a waitlist of interested customers. And, yes, that long line out the door is indeed good for business. Is it unethical for Barbuto to keep a long waitlist? No. As long as customers aren’t promised that they’ll be able to get a table, customers choose to remain on that waitlist at their discretion. The same is true of college waitlists.
Colleges are like restaurants. At the end of the day, they’re all businesses. To fault a business for attracting so much business is, well, worthy of inclusion on Anderson Cooper’s “RidicuList.”