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College wait lists used to be where dreams died. The pandemic changed that

Milton High graduate Caitlin Lydon was put on a wait list by Providence College and decided to attend Syracuse University. Then Providence offered admission. She stuck with Syracuse.
Milton High graduate Caitlin Lydon was put on a wait list by Providence College and decided to attend Syracuse University. Then Providence offered admission. She stuck with Syracuse.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Milton High School senior Caitlin Lydon was crushed when her application to Providence College, her top choice, was deferred this past winter and again when she was placed on the school’s wait list in March.

With the traditional May 1 commitment date for most colleges fast approaching, Lydon eventually decided to attend Syracuse University and submitted her $950 deposit. Two days later, Providence admissions officials e-mailed her, taking her off the wait list and offering her $32,000 in financial aid to come to their campus instead.

“I cried so much over it,” said Lydon, 18. “At Syracuse, I already had a roommate and was excited about the programs. But Providence was so much money. It was crazy.”

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The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the traditional admissions cycle entirely off-kilter this spring and left many high school seniors in Lydon’s predicament. After being dumped or sidelined by their dream schools, they find the tables have suddenly turned. Colleges are giving them second and third looks and wooing them with unexpected admissions offers, generous financial aid packages, and even campus swag, from T-shirts to sunglasses, in the hopes of sweetening the deal.

Institutions across the board, from highly competitive Ivy League colleges to state universities, are digging deep into their wait list roster to boost their enrollments. Uncertain how many students will show up for classes this fall and fearful that enrollment will drop, admissions gatekeepers are scrambling to fill freshman seats.

“I’ve seen the up and downs, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Lisa Gelman of Hingham, who has worked as a private admissions counselor since 2002. “If there is a silver lining with COVID-19, that is it. It’s making a lot of students really happy.”

One of Gelman’s clients, Jessica Moskowitz, a high school senior from Salt Lake City, in a whirlwind three weeks was taken off three of four college wait lists.

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Moskowitz was set to attend the University of California Santa Barbara and had met two potential roommates over Instagram at the end of April, when Claremont McKenna College called to make an offer. The college even mailed her a box of merchandise emblazoned with the Claremont McKenna name and stag mascot, hoping to excite her school spirit.

Moskowitz declined. A week later, New York University removed her from its wait list and gave her 72 hours to decide on its offer. She declined.

A few days later, it was Emory University, offering Moskowitz admissions. Emory initially gave her a 24-hour window to make up her mind, but after Moskowitz explained that her parents were both doctors and working during the pandemic, they extended the deadline by more than a week. Now, she’s not sure whether to stick with UCSB or go to Emory and is trying to figure out which is more likely to have the one thing she wants most this fall: in-person classes.

“I’ve been flip-flopping back and forth every day,” Moskowitz said. “I can see myself being happy at either one of them.”

Traditionally, turning a spot on the wait list into a seat in the fall has been a nearly impossible feat for most seniors. In 2018, the average acceptance rate off the wait list for colleges was 20 percent, according to the most recent data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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At highly selective schools, only 7 percent of students who were placed on wait lists were then offered admission, according to the NACAC. Those odds were even slimmer at Ivy League institutions.

This year has been far different. Colleges are not only offering admission to more students on wait lists, but many started to do so even before May 1. Usually, students send their deposits to colleges by May 1, giving institutions a good sense of who plans to attend and whether they may need to pull applicants off the wait list to plug holes. If they need more full-paying students, or low-income students, or international students, or Midwestern students, they draw from the wait list.

For the first time in three decades, Boston College reached out to students on the wait list before the May 1 deadline.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, the state’s university system’s flagship campus, didn’t offer any admission to any students on the wait list last year but this year pulled 100 students from its 2,350-applicant wait list.

Boston University and Northeastern University, which are both heavily reliant on international students who may not be able to travel to campus this year, said they have offered more wait-listed students admission this year. Both declined to comment about how many students they took off wait lists.

With larger and more competitive institutions in the Boston area offering places to students they wouldn’t usually consider, they essentially poached from smaller colleges, forcing them to pull from their wait lists, too.

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That’s partially the situation that Providence College found itself in this spring, said Raul Fonts, the dean of admissions and financial aid at the nearly 5,000-student campus.

“The trickle effect happened quickly,” Fonts said. For the past six years, Providence has taken just a handful of students off the wait list. This spring it reached out to more than 370 students on its wait list and so far has enrolled 78 of them in an effort to ensure the college brings in deposits from about 1,100 freshmen by June 1. “There are lot of enrollment managers this year who are wondering when this will end, when this will get better,” he said.

Colleges and universities have been trying to reassure anxious students and their families in the past two weeks by rolling out plans for the fall semester, hoping that it will encourage more of them to commit to an institution and enroll.

Colleges are facing real financial danger if they don’t make their enrollment goals this fall or if they lose money on room and board because fewer students can come to campus because of social distancing rules, said Jeff Levy, an independent education consultant in California.

Considering the financial pressures colleges are facing, this year’s wait list shuffle is probably benefiting wealthier families and students who can afford to pay full-price tuition, Levy said.

“When there’s a going to be a shortfall, you’re not looking for a lot of students with need,” Levy said.

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Levy said he has worked with students who got removed from the wait list pile at Brown University and Bates College this spring, both students who could pay the full tuition.

Levy said he is concerned that colleges may be admitting too many students in an effort to cushion their rosters. But for many institutions, that doesn’t seem to be as pressing a fear as under-enrollment, he said.

There may be reason to be concerned. Some high school seniors say that being a college’s backup choice stings, and they are far from eager to accept a college that once put them on a wait list.

Gabe Hunyor, 18, from Ohio, was denied admission to Western Michigan University’s musical theater program earlier this year. In late April, he got an e-mail from the school offering him a spot on the wait list and suggesting that if he was eager to attend, it would help his chances.

“The thought of the school coming to you after they rejected you — do they want me or are they just trying to boost their numbers?” Hunyor said. “I was the backup of the backups.”

Hunyor plans to attend Kent State University this fall.

Lydon, from Milton, ultimately declined Providence College’s offer. She was turned off by an offer spurred by the pandemic and wasn’t sure whether the financial aid would be guaranteed for four years, Lydon said.

“I saw myself more at Syracuse,” she said. “I’m really excited.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.