Variations result in overcrowdingBy Katie Schwarz
Third in a series on issues affecting housing and class size.
This year's larger-than-intended class size resulted from unpredictable variations both in the summer withdrawal rate and in the response of students admitted from the waiting list, according to Director of Admissions Michael C. Behnke.
The Admissions Office decides each year how it will meet the class size target set by the Academic Council. The Institute offers admission to students based on a "yield" of admitted applicants who enroll at MIT.
The Admissions Office controls the number of offers of admission extended. But it can control neither how many of those offers are accepted nor how many students withdraw during the summer.
Approximately 1800 applicants are admitted each March. The yield from this group "doesn't vary tremendously from year to year," Behnke said.
Retired Senior Associate Director of Admissions Julia C. McLellan said reducing the incoming class size is the only solution to current overcrowding in the dormitory system. The Admissions Office must be "very careful" not to exceed the targeted class size, she said.
The projected size of next year's class must be determined soon, she added. Applications for MIT's "early action" program will be evaluated in the next few months and the Admissions Office must know approximately how many students to accept under the program.
Target to be treated as ceiling
President Paul E. Gray '54 has directed the Admissions Office not to exceed the targeted size of next year's incoming class. The Academic Council will establish a projection for the size of Class of 1990 in November.
Gray feels the large size of the past four incoming classes "strained his credibility" because it conflicts with his stated intention to keep dormitory crowding at an acceptable level, Behnke said.
The Admissions Office will aim for a slightly smaller class than the official target next spring to make sure the class is not too large, Behnke said.
The Institute can accept a smaller class without harming itself financially because tuition is a relatively small part of MIT's income and because the past four entering classes have exceeded their targets, Behnke said. The budget is "driven by the overall number of students on campus," he explained.
Tuition and other related income made up only 14 percent of MIT's revenues in 1984, according to the MIT Treasurer's Office.
Most schools depend much more heavily on tuition revenue than MIT does, Behnke continued.
Waiting list yield was surprising
The yield of applicants admitted from the waiting list is usually similar to the overall yield, but this year it was "extraordinary," according to Behnke. Nearly all of the 30 applicants admitted from the waiting list this year enrolled at MIT, he said.
Acceptance letters are currently sent to all students on the waiting list at the same time. It is also possible to "roll" waiting list admissions by accepting some students earlier than others. Further groups of applicants could be admitted after the yield from the first group is determined.
Rolling admissions may allow class size to be controlled more accurately. "I suspect it would be a good idea," Behnke said.
MIT must finish all waiting list actions by July 1 because of an agreement made two years ago with members of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), according to Behnke. COFHE comprises about 30 selective private institutions, including the Ivy League colleges, he said.
Less popular colleges tend to lose students who are accepted from the waiting lists of the more popular COFHE institutions, Behnke explained. Therefore, the COFHE institutions must finish their waiting list actions early enough for other colleges to stabilize their class size, he continued.
The COFHE institutions also felt that keeping applicants on waiting lists too long was unfair, Behnke added. He agreed with McLellan's statement that "the trauma with the waiting list is just awful."
Applicants accepted from the waiting list very late are less likely to attend MIT because they have probably made other plans, Behnke said.
The Admissions Office cannot estimate the class size more accurately by requiring accepted applicants to decide earlier whether they will attend MIT, Behnke said. The "candidate's reply date" of May 1 is "inflexible" because it is agreed on by nearly all colleges in the country, he explained.
Summer melt below expectations
Attrition of the class during the summer is another source of error in the Admissions Office's predictions, because not all admitted students who say they will attend MIT actually enroll. The difference between the number of students who indicate they intend to attend MIT and the number who register in the fall is called the "summer melt."
The class of 1989 numbered 1087 in July. The Admissions Office expected the class to shrink by 30 to 60 students over the summer, according to Administrative Assistant Eduardo Grado '83. The actual summer melt numbered about 25 students.
This year's class would not have been oversized if the summer melt had been as large as expected, McLellan said. She did not know why the melt was small. "All sorts of forces seem to be at play outside," she said.
Approximately 30 students over each of the past two summers have reversed their decisions to attend MIT, according to Behnke. Between 50 and 60 students decided not to attend in the two previous years.
He believes the smaller melt for the past two years forms a pattern and will assume about the same summer withdrawal rate when predicting the size of next year's class.
Students change their minds about attending MIT because they are admitted to other schools from waiting lists and decide to attend those schools. Students also defer admission to the Institute, Behnke explained.
MIT will continue to require no admissions deposit, Behnke said.
An admissions deposit is a fee required by some schools to reserve a prospective freshman's admitted status. This fee is credited to a student's tuition payment when he or she enrolls.
Other schools which require an admissions deposit have not found that it helps to predict the class size accurately, according to Associate Dean for Student Affairs Robert A. Sherwood.
Admissions to be "cautious"
Barring "disaster," Behnke sees no problem in keeping next year's incoming class at or under its targeted size. "We'll be more cautious in accepting students from the waiting list," he said.
He observed that it may be more difficult than usual for applicants to gain admission to MIT this year because of the smaller class size. "We don't like to say no ... we're an office of admissions, not rejections," he said.
The yield of admitted applicants typically fluctuates by as much as three percent from year-to-year, according to Behnke. Some schools have experienced changes in yield by as much as seven or eight percent between one year and the next, he added. A three percent variation in yield implies an uncertainty of fifty students in the class size.
It may be possible to predict the yield more accurately by examining subgroups of the applicants, Behnke said. Students who have visited MIT, for instance, are more likely to attend than those who have not, he said.
Yields have become "more difficult to predict over the last five to ten years," Behnke said. High school students apply to more colleges now than in the past and thus are admitted at more schools, he explained.
High school students see more options today, so their choices are harder to predict, he said. Some colleges formerly asked candidates where else they had applied, but such inquiries are now considered an invasion of privacy, he added.
Behnke believes the current class size is appropriate for MIT's academic resources. The only overcrowded academic facilities are in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, which has suffered because of disproportionate enrollment in that department, he said.