Verbum Ultimum: A Numbers Game

Dartmouth’s yield rate may be more complex than it seems.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 5/12/17 12:35am

Sixty-one percent of students admitted to Dartmouth’s Class of 2021 accepted their offer of admission, the highest yield rate in the last 25 years according to the College. This figure is almost 10 percent higher than recent yield rates, which may lead us to instinctively believe that it signifies something important, perhaps the success of the Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative or an increase in the caliber of current students.

But assuming such significance would be premature, and we cannot use this number as a reason to be complacent in thinking about what we — staff and students alike — still need to fix. We cannot yet know whether this increase is the beginning of a positive trend or a one-year anomaly. And even if the numbers do stay up, yield rate, like most statistics, can be manipulated and may be more complex than it initially seems.

A higher yield rate is generally correlated with more prestige; by virtue of having more students choose Dartmouth over comparable universities, the increase in yield rate suggests that we are better at getting prospective students to commit than other schools are. And yield rate is key to many college rankings systems, itself equated with prestige for the College and its students. An increasing yield rate, in the lens of prestige, may then be a positive signal for Dartmouth.

The increase from previous years also tells the College that it is doing something right, and can therefore be used to leverage the idea that recent reforms are exactly what the student body — or at least the incoming student body — wants. The administration of College President Phil Hanlon will likely take heart in the numbers — the figures could be taken as a positive sign for Hanlon’s signature MDF initiative and other reforms. However, the evidence for that interpretation is incomplete.

Colleges calculate yield rate by dividing the number of students committed to attending by the number of students admitted. The number of admitted students includes the entire early decision pool, where the College can accept students who are essentially guaranteed to attend. This year, 43.4 percent of the Class of 2021 will be from the early decision pool, a slight increase from 42.7 percent the previous year that comes out to 61 additional students. Because accepting more early decision students allows Dartmouth to fill more of its class early on, and thus rely less on the yield from regular decision students, it is unclear if the increased yield rate of the incoming class is tied to a positive trend for the College or a numbers game with early decision, or maybe both.

The College itself cites additional possible factors for the increased yield rate, such as the inclusion of Dartmouth-specific questions in the application, as demonstrating an increased ability to filter out people who are less invested in the school. While this is not a bad thing — of course we want students who also want us — it does not necessarily show that the College is improving, just that fewer students are applying on a whim.

The fact that the College’s yield rate has spiked in Lee Coffin’s as vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid could point to a different explanation. Coffin was previously employed by Tufts University, a school that lent its name to “Tufts syndrome,” the practice of rejecting more qualified students for less qualified students who are more likely to accept their offers of admission. More technically known as “yield protection,” this was given its colloquial moniker during Coffin’s 13-year tenure at Tufts, in which application volume increased 37 percent. However, it’s unfair to tie this concept directly to Coffin, as this year’s accepted students have higher SAT scores and more valedictorians and salutatorians than previous years. He’s also just doing his job — and doing it very well in his first year.

While increased yield rate is a positive sign for the admissions office, its impact on current students is harder to gauge. The College is already suffering from a shortage of undergraduate housing, and admitting a larger class is unlikely to ameliorate the situation. The College may also need to reduce its intake next year to compensate, leading to smaller future class sizes.

This year’s high yield rate seems like a positive trend, but we cannot assume that it shows that the College or its students are improving as a whole. The College has every reason to celebrate the yield rate — in the years to come, it might reveal that reforms are actually working and the student body is getting stronger. Yet yield rate, like most statistics, is more complicated than it may seem. We shouldn’t interpret it as a blanket affirmation of ourselves and of our College — and continue to strive to improve.

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.