Matriculation Matters
Skip to content
Podcast | Insight Unpacked Season 1: Extraordinary Brands and How to Build Them
Economics Strategy Policy Dec 1, 2010

Matriculation Matters

Refining the college admissions guessing game

Based on the research of

Peter Nurnberg

Morton Schapiro

David Zimmerman

The college application and decision process is fraught with uncertainty, and not just for hopeful high school seniors

Add Insight
to your inbox.

Colleges have their own form of admissions anxiety—they need to guess how many offers will be accepted. If too few applicants decide to attend, a college must call on its wait list. If too many accept, problems abound—dorm rooms must be reconfigured, financial aid budgets must be bolstered, and class sizes need to be reconsidered.

All admissions departments have formulas to estimate how many prospective students will matriculate each fall, and they often do quite well. Yet for all their accuracy in guessing acceptance rates, these models are not well suited to fleshing out the details of the incoming class. The simple yes-or-no number is the vital statistic, but the particulars are almost as important, including numbers relating to students who need financial aid, legacy students, and minority students.

With that in mind, three economists set out to build a better mousetrap. Using sophisticated econometric techniques, they constructed a model that evaluates the characteristics of different students and predicts the probability of each student’s accepting an offer of admission.

Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, developed the model with Peter Nurnberg and David Zimmerman, professors at Williams College. Their results were highly accurate when tested against Williams’ class of 2013, although Schapiro admits the Williams admissions department’s simpler formulas arrived at nearly the same answer as their model. “There’s an old expression that goes, ‘You don’t use a tank to squash a grape,’ ” Schapiro says. “This is obviously a more sophisticated model to forecast yield than anybody uses, I think. But I’m not sure if it’s a tank.”

Individual Assessments
While the new model may be overkill for estimating straightforward yield—what admissions departments call the percentage of admitted students who accept an offer—it is well suited to determining the likelihood of any one individual’s matriculating. In the case of Williams College, students who were class valedictorians or salutatorians were 20 percent less likely to matriculate than students in the top 5 percent of their high school class.

The reason? High school seniors with top academic records tend to be admitted to more colleges, increasing their choices and decreasing the probability that they will attend any one institution. Those with slightly less glowing academic records probably have fewer choices and thus are more likely to accept an offer (Figure 1).

Schapiro2010_Fig1.gif

Figure 1. Difference in probability of accepting admission for students of different academic ratings. For example, students with an academic rating of 2 are 22 percent less likely to accept an offer than students with an academic rating of 1.

But to size up applicants, Schapiro and his colleagues’ model looks at far more than academic records and SAT scores. It also examines extracurricular activities, the distance from home to campus, the amount of contact between the student and the school, and the total financial cost to be borne by the student and their family.

“There’s an old expression that goes, ‘You don’t use a tank to squash a grape,’ ” Schapiro says. “This is obviously a more sophisticated model to forecast yield than anybody uses, I think. But I’m not sure if it’s a tank.”

According to the model, the most likely applicant to matriculate at Williams is a white male living within 10 km of campus who attends a public school. He is in the top 10 percent of his high school class and is a varsity athlete. He has a family member who attended Williams, is religious and politically active and has visited the school’s admissions office. He also has no clue what his major will be.

Some of these qualities may be a reaction to the way the school sells itself. The most likely applicant’s lack of a major is a good example. “At Williams, you can’t even declare your major until the end of your sophomore year,” Schapiro says. “It’s the way Williams portrays itself. It’s a place to go to stretch.”

Where the model says Williams College falls short is among minority applicants, those who live more than 10,000 km from campus, and those who come from a big city. Prospective students interested in art and theater are also less likely to attend Williams.

For schools that find themselves less attractive to a particular type of applicant, the model raises a few questions. In the case of art and theater students at Williams, Schapiro wonders, “Does it mean that your programs are bad, or does it mean that your programs are good and no one recognizes it?” The model could help a college determine if it needs to bolster its academic programs or simply redouble its promotional efforts in that area.

Behind the Decision
Determining why students accept an offer of admission is Schapiro’s next target. His current research focuses on what he calls “educational goodwill.” In a sense, it tries to answer the question, why would someone attend Harvard or Yale or UC Berkeley over another college, all else being equal?

“We look at everything you could possibly imagine could explain the attraction of a school,” Schapiro says. “Some schools do better than you would ever be able to explain and some schools do worse, despite the fact that they have a lot of great things going on.”


Related reading on Kellogg Insight

On the Origin of Schools: The diversity of Arizona’s charter schools

Principal Performance: What if school principals’ pay was tied to job performance? Turns out, it already is

Featured Faculty

President, Northwestern University; Professor of Strategy

About the Writer
Tim De Chant was science writer and editor of Kellogg Insight between 2009 and 2012.
About the Research

Nurnberg, Peter, Morton Schapiro, and David Zimmerman. 2012. Students Choosing Colleges: Understanding the Matriculation Decision at a Highly Selective Private Institution. Economics of Education Review, February, 31(1): 1-8.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. Your Team Doesn’t Need You to Be the Hero
    Too many leaders instinctively try to fix a crisis themselves. A U.S. Army colonel explains how to curb this tendency in yourself and allow your teams to flourish.
    person with red cape trying to put out fire while firefighters stand by.
  2. How Experts Make Complex Decisions
    By studying 200 million chess moves, researchers shed light on what gives players an advantage—and what trips them up.
    two people playing chess
  3. What Went Wrong with FTX—and What’s Next for Crypto?
    One key issue will be introducing regulation without strangling innovation, a fintech expert explains.
    stock trader surrounded by computer monitors
  4. What Triggers a Career Hot Streak?
    New research reveals a recipe for success.
    Collage of sculptor's work culminating in Artist of the Year recognition
  5. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  6. What’s the Secret to Successful Innovation?
    Hint: it’s not the product itself.
    standing woman speaking with man seated on stool
  7. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  8. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  9. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  10. Yes, Consumers Care if Your Product Is Ethical
    New research shows that morality matters—but it’s in the eye of the beholder.
    woman chooses organic lettuce in grocery
  11. What Donors Need to Hear to Open the Checkbook
    Insights from marketing on how charities can grow by appealing to different kinds of donors.
  12. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  13. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  14. The Complicated Logic Behind Donating to a Food Pantry Rather than Giving a Hungry Person Cash
    If we were in need, we’d likely want money. So what accounts for that difference?
    Donating food is paternalistic aid
  15. Product Q&A Forums Hold a Lot of Promise. Here’s How to Make Them Work.
    The key to these online communities, where users can ask and answer questions, is how many questions get useful answers.
    man sits at computer reading Q&A forum
  16. Podcast: What the FTX Meltdown Means for the Future of Crypto
    The implosion of the crypto exchange has sent the industry reeling. We dig into what happened and whether cryptocurrency, as a concept, can weather the storm.
  17. What the New Climate Bill Means for the U.S.—and the World
    The Inflation Reduction Act won’t reverse inflation or halt climate change, but it's still a big deal.
    energy bill with solar panels wind turbines and pipelines
  18. To Improve Fundraising, Give Donors a Local Connection
    Research offers concrete strategies for appealing to donors who want to make an impact.
    Charity appeals that frame the message around local connection tend to be more successful as a result of the proximity effect
  19. Post-War Reconstruction Is a Good Investment
    Ukraine’s European neighbors will need to make a major financial commitment to help rebuild its economy after the war. Fortunately, as the legacy of the post–World War II Marshall Plan shows, investing in Ukraine's future will also serve Europe's own long-term interests.
    two people look out over a city
More in Economics