May 1 is known as National College Decision Day, as it is often the deadline for students to make deposits to attend the college of their choice. Both local and national media love to highlight students who attend selective institutions, making it seem like May 1 applies to many students who are holding offers from multiple institutions. It’s also spawned a Twitter hashtag of #DecisionDay, which is worth a look. But in reality, the May 1 deadline doesn’t apply to that many students. Below are some reasons why.
(1) In the community college and less-selective four-year sectors, many students apply for admission well after May 1. For example, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which admitted about two-thirds of applicants for the fall 2012 semester, does not have a firm cutoff date for admission. For-profit institutions often have rolling admissions, meaning that the May 1 deadline applies to only more selective public and nonprofit colleges.
(2) The decision day only really matters to students who applied and are admitted to multiple colleges. Given that most students stay close to home to attend college (as illustrated in these great charts by data wizard Jon Boeckenstedt) and don’t apply to more than three or four colleges, students may not even wait until the last minute to make their decision. I only applied to two colleges and made my decision in October (thank you, rolling admissions!), so I submitted my deposit well before the May 1 deadline.
(3) Just because a student submits a deposit doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will actually enroll in the fall. Some students submit deposits to multiple institutions, as the cost is often relatively small (as examples, Montclair State requires a $525 deposit and Seton Hall requires $625). Submitting multiple deposits is highly unethical according to admissions professionals, as they want certainty in the sizes of their incoming classes. But anecdotal conversations with enrollment management professionals reveal a rising rate of (suspected) multiple deposits, even though colleges may be able to rescind admissions offers under these circumstances.
At less-selective institutions with May 1 deposit deadlines, “summer melt,” in which students intend to go to college but fail to enroll anywhere in the fall, can be a concern. Researchers have estimated the rate of summer melt at between 10 and 40 percent, although the number is likely on the lower end for the types of colleges with May 1 deposit deadlines. This is a factor that colleges may be able to mitigate with good outreach programs and summer interventions.
So pardon my lack of excitement for National Decision Day, as it doesn’t really affect that many students. If the goal is to encourage students whose success in college is far from guaranteed, let’s focus on getting students to apply after May 1 and then show up in the fall.