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.