Random Thoughts on May 1

Have you heard?  It’s the end of April, which means it’s almost May 1.  If you don’t know what that means, or why it’s so important to people like me, you’re not in admissions or enrollment management or financial aid.  We all know.  And it has nothing to do with dancing around poles with streamers.

May 1 is the traditional “National Candidates (sic) reply date,” a very silly name given to the date we ask students admitted to the freshman class to respond to our offer of admission.  And yet, in reality, it means very little at all to almost everyone involved in admissions.

May 1 is one of those things that might best fall under the term “Collusion.”  Of the 7,000 or so post-secondary institutions in the United States, only about 1,700 are members of NACAC, the organization has the National Candidates (sic) Reply Date embedded in its Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  They’re probably the first 1,700 you’d name, however. And by nature of our membership, we collectively agree to give students the chance to wait until May 1 to respond.  Isn’t that kind of us?

(In the old days, there were tremendous and long-standing debates about whether May 1 meant the check had to be in the admissions office on May 1, or whether it had to be in the hands of the USPS by May 1.  When I learned that the IRS didn’t even start checking postmarks on Income Tax returns until about a week after April 15, something that always seemed silly to me seemed suddenly sillier.)

Many in admissions who claim to have a student-centered view of the universe suggest that the May 1 deadline exists for the benefit of students; that it allows them ample time after admission notification arrives (sometimes as late as April 15) to make an informed decision.  The implication is clear: You should know where you want to go, and when your options come in, well, damn it, make a decision already will you?  No, it’s not hard; no, you and your parents should have talked about money long ago; no, you can’t have an extension.  And no, we cannot, under any circumstances, accelerate the reading of applications to get you your decision earlier.  (This is despite the fact that a professor at one of the Ivy League Institutions–yes, that one–that happens to run a summer program on admissions once said at this summer program in which I was in attendance that  he could pick 90% of the freshmen with a math equation.)

In reality, I opine, May 1 exists because the visible and most prestigious colleges and universities operate admissions functions that maintain long wait lists of candidates.  And anything later than May 1 means they might not fill their classes with the pick of the litter students.  But it’s ironic that the same colleges that take months to decide whether a student is worthy somehow think the student should be perfectly capable of deciding in a couple weeks.

I’ll say it again: May 1 is for the most selective colleges.  Most of us don’t fall into that category. It may, by accident, work for students at the brand-name prep schools who have been on the glide path to college forever.  It probably works fine for kids who don’t need to worry about financial aid. It certainly works for the super-selective institutions who want to be done with another cycle and take the summer off. It’s self-interest, really.

To be clear, I have nothing against self-interest.  Without it, we might not exist.  And I have nothing against powerful members of a cartel getting the cartel to codify and legislate self-interest; I work in Chicago, and that’s the Chicago way.

I do, however, object to making it seem like it’s about students.  And I react, as I almost always do, to overwrought drama that surrounds it every year.

May 1 is especially meaningless because a) most colleges and universities will consider a good candidate who applies late into the summer, and b) most of them don’t have wait lists in the first place.  But at the same time, many are afraid to even indicate this on the NACAC “Space Availability Survey” that comes out every year.  It’s sort of like the pool of kids who didn’t get a prom date coming together in a parking lot to try to hook up at the last minute; you really want to go to prom, but you don’t want to be associated with some of the desperate losers there.  (Even among kids who don’t have prom dates, there’s a pecking order, you see).

And it’s also mostly meaningless because the freshman who enters college right after high school and stays four years is the decided minority: Maybe as little as 15% of all students.  Maybe 40% of all college students are over 25; and 9% of all college students in the US attend a California Community College.  May 1 comes and goes for these people without a second thought.

For me, May 1 means I’ll be watching numbers like everyone else.  We’ve been lucky; our dance card has been full the last couple of years, but past is not necessarily prologue.  But I wish it were not the case.

And for me, May 1 marks firing season: When good colleagues lose their jobs because not enough 17 year-olds, or not enough of the right kind of 17 year-olds end up enrolling at their college.  Demographics and uncontrollable things be damned; expectations are expectations.

That count is already at four, and it’s just the ones I know about; as we all know, the number will rise over the next few days.  And it will go all summer long.  When it comes to making those decisions, there is no deadline.

4 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on May 1

  1. Scary to hear about four of our colleagues (so far). I always tell parents and new bosses that my job depends on the behavior of thousands of 17 year olds; it is true to a large extent. Setting that aside, although I agree with you on almost everything Jon, May 1 will be the exception. A couple of reasons. 1). We need to get more and more of both the adult and traditional students to plan more carefully a further in advance. There are community colleges that tightened up on admission deadlines and required orientation whose census counts went down, but retention skyrocketed. Sending messages about planning and organization is a good thing. For colleges with housing and who use primarily full time faculty, knowing the size of your class May 1 is a very, very good thing for planning and efficiencies. And I know there will probably be 250 kids who we admitted in December who will pay deposits to Purdue tomorrow; waiting to the last minute is endemic for most and certainty for youth. Deadlines and commitments aren’t a bad thing for developing young adults to learn they must adhere to. No, not all options are available to you and yes, you have to make a decision. Pretty good life lessons really. Maybe the main problem is that decisions are out just too late. How about a NACAC standard of – if students apply for admission and financial aid by Feb 1 or earlier, they should be guaranteed an admission decision and FINAL financial aid offer by March 15. Six weeks to vist compare offers (all of which should be non-negotiable so parents stop trying to sell their kids to the highest bidder – a change in need status would be the exception). Anyone who applies after Feb 1 would still be guaranteed to have a decision in six weeks and have six weeks from that decision to make up her mind. And of course any college can set a deadline long before Feb 1 if they want. Just some thoughts on May 1 eve…..


  2. I agree with a lot of what Pam said above. The paragraph in your essay that resonated most with me was the one that began, “May 1 is especially meaningless . . . .” I don’t say it so bluntly but I share with parents and students repeatedly and publicly that May 1 is a soft deadline at the vast majority of schools. The problem is, how do you know which schools? If anyone asks me about May 1 at my university, I tell them the pro’s and con’s of meeting the May 1 deadline (e.g., housing assignments are released earlier for those who deposit on time) but I can’t say with certainty in any given year whether the other schools they’re considering will perhaps not have room for someone who deposits late. As with many other aspects of the admission process, it would certainly help if there was more transparency on the part of each school.

    As for the word “collusion” . . . I suspect you used it just to add some drama to your post but I think it’s really misplaced. While would could argue as to whether May 1 is or is not the best date to use, there is an advantage to students to have an agreed upon date. Otherwise, as you know, we would see schools demanding deposits by January or some other time frame that they see most convenient for their own purposes. Pam’s suggestion that admission/FA decisions be made earlier probably makes more sense than shifting the reply date or doing away with it.

    I have to say, it’s nice sometimes to work for a school that uses rolling admission and is in no danger of hitting its enrollment cap!


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