Alana Wolf will enter Cornell University as a student for the first time this fall. But unlike most of the other nervous new arrivals, she won’t be starting as a freshman.
Cornell admitted her 18 months ago on condition she go somewhere else for a year and come back as a sophomore.
It was an example of a little-known policy universities appear to be increasingly using to balance their own enrollments and take students who might otherwise not make the cut on the first try — from children of alumni to full-paying foreign students who need work on their English to low-income and first-generation graduates of high schools that have provided them poor study skills.
Cornell never told Wolf, who is from Millburn, New Jersey, why she was admitted conditionally, she said. But having fallen in love with the campus when she spent three weeks there on a college-preparation program while in high school, she is looking forward to entering its top-ranked hospitality program — regardless of how she got there.
“It was a really cool opportunity,” said Wolf, who spent her freshman year less than three miles from Cornell at neighboring Ithaca College. “Some people think, ‘Oh, she didn’t get in the first time.’ They see it as a curse. But I choose to see it as a blessing.”
It’s a blessing being bestowed on more and more applicants to college, according to admission consultants and observers of the largely secretive admission process.
“When students get a response that they’ve been admitted conditionally, in many cases it’s likely to be a surprise, like, ‘I didn’t even know that was an option,’” said Eric Endlich, founder of Top College Consultants near Boston, who advises college applicants. “It’s not typically mentioned in the application materials or the promotional materials that colleges provide.”
Many students who have benefitted from it see conditional admission as a perfectly acceptable route to their top-choice campus. Universities tout it as a way they can admit more low-income students who deserve a chance but might not have had the same advantages of better-prepared applicants from private and suburban high schools.
But much of the momentum behind conditional admission — also called deferred admission, alternative admission, conditional transfer and provisional admission — comes from the competitive and enrollment pressures even top institutions face.
By sending them off to spend their freshman years elsewhere and requiring them to meet certain academic targets, for instance, colleges ensure that students are motivated and likely to make it all the way to graduation rather than cost revenue by dropping out. It also saves them at least a year’s worth of financial aid, if the student qualifies for it.
Since nearly one in five full-time freshmen admitted in conventional ways do drop out, according to the U.S. Department of Education, having a line on applicants ready to start as sophomores also helps those schools fill empty seats and beds and keep tuition coming in.
That’s gotten harder during an ongoing enrollment slide now entering its seventh year. There were nearly 2.9 million fewer college students in the spring semester that just ended than at the last peak in 2011, the National Student Clearinghouse reports.
“With the general softening of the market, conditional admission lets institutions hedge their bets,” said Kim Reid, principal analyst for the National Research Council for College and University Admission. “Especially in parts of the country where there are fewer academically credentialed students, there probably are schools that are having to go deeper into their pools of applicants and admitting students who aren’t as academically prepared.”
Enrolling them as sophomores, however, prevents those students from being counted in statistics about average high school grade-point averages and admission test scores of entering freshmen, used in all-important rankings such as those produced by U.S. News. And it can make an institution’s selectivity — the proportion of applicants accepted — look higher than it really is, since students admitted as sophomores aren’t included.
“There’s both a cynical and a non-cynical logic to having some of these programs,” Reid said.
Many universities and colleges that have conditional admission were reluctant to discuss it. Some officials outside of admission departments said they didn’t even know it existed.
“They don’t want too much focus on this,” Endlich said.
A spokesman for Cornell said about a quarter of its 700 to 750 transfer students each year come to the university through this process, which it calls the “transfer option.” Wolf said she has already talked with several, and will be a sharing a dorm room with three.
New York University has conditional admission, but a spokesman said it’s seldom used, and mostly reserved for high school graduates missing admission requirements because of illness, a death in the family or some other unanticipated crisis.
The conditional admission policy at George Washington University, which began five years ago, requires students to spend their freshman years at the American University of Paris, its partner in the program, before returning to the Washington, D.C. campus as sophomores. About 30 students annually are accepted in this way, the university said.
Under pressure to increase their proportions of low-income students, elite universities in particular are using conditional admission to accept them, not only avoiding imperiling their rankings but also lowering their risk by sending these students somewhere else for a year to see if they can handle college. Most require that the students meet minimum academic standards and earn a predetermined number of credits.
Colleges also use conditional admission to accept sought-after international students, who often pay full tuition and sometimes even an additional stipend, but may need more work on their English skills. Several public universities offer the option for this purpose, including some California State University System campuses, the University of Minnesota, Rutgers, Ball State and North Carolina and North Dakota state universities. Some require non-native-English-speaking applicants to spend a year brushing up on their language skills; others send them to intensive English programs until they meet a given level of proficiency.
Southern Methodist University began to offer conditional admission about 10 years ago, when its popularity was on the rise and competition to get in intensified, in an attempt to keep the door open for all of these kinds of students — as well as children of alumni, faculty and staff — said Wes Waggoner, associate vice president for enrollment management.
“There are certain students who are important to the university who quite honestly have many advantages in their life just as there are also students who are interested in the university who don’t have those advantages,” Waggoner said.
SMU offers conditional admission to 1,200 applicants a year, he said; 75 to 100 typically say they will eventually enroll, and 35 to 50 actually do.
Waggoner’s candor about the reasons that it’s used shows how conditional admission is a symbol of the many pressures universities are under, Reid said, “to keep the headcount up, to keep the revenue up, to keep admitting [low-income and first-generation] students, to keep development offices happy.”
But the universities, he said, would just as soon not draw attention to it.
“It’s kind of the right thing to do,” Reid said, “but you don’t want anyone to know about it.”
This story was co-produced by WGBH News and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Jon Marcus is the higher education editor for The Hechinger Report. WGBH News’ Esteban Bustillos contributed to this story.