College Admission- What the Funnel?!

Listen to the podcast! Apple | Spotify | Spreaker

If we received over 5,000 applications, how did we not end up enrolling over 1,000 students this year? 

Wait. You are telling me we are a public college, and we get more applications from outside of our state than from residents within it? 

I am deeply concerned. We admitted 12,000 students this year, but we only want a class of 2500! What have you done?!  

What the Funnel?!  

I get it. Often, press releases focus on the number of applications a college receives or on their overall admit rate. Both of those inputs are deeply important to the enrollment story of an institution, but on their own, they are incomplete at best, and dangerously misleading at worst.  

So, in hopes of bringing some clarity to the overall equation and helping keep numbers in perspective when you see just one or two featured on social media or in an admission presentation, I’m proud to present… THE FUNNEL (The admission/enrollment funnel that is… because you know when we are talking about college and funnels, it’s important to distinguish…anyway, here you go.) 

Welcome to Example College

Last year you were hired as the new dean of admission (Congrats!). Just before you arrived the president and board here at EXAMPLE COLLEGE set a Fall 2022 class goal of 2,022. They thought it would be cute and catchy, but the bottom line is they set the operating budget, residence hall renovations, number of class sections, and faculty hiring with the assumption you will deliver 2,022 smiling, selfie-taking, smoothie-drinking new EXAMPLES next fall so they can passionately cheer on the Fighting Ex’s in their home opener against cross-town rival Sample University (“SU! SU! SU!”) 

Over the course of the last few months, you have great work recruiting, enhancing virtual tours and campus visits, sending out glossy brochures and postcards with EXAMPLE students lounging on the quad or standing on high places abroad pondering life’s mysteries. By January you and your team have brought in a total of 20,220 applications. That’s a lot (Not UCLA-a-lot, nor Sir Mix-a lot, but generally college admission-a-lot).    

Ok. This is where confusion related to applications vs. admits vs. deposits vs. enrolled begins. And here is how it sounds from an EXAMPLE alum at a holiday party. “Oh, my goodness (G-version), I would never have gotten in these days. 2,022 spots and 20,220 apps!  

Dean (That’s you): Yes. (Backpedaling, sweating, and stammering) I mean, not that you wouldn’t have gotten in, but YES, you have those two data points correct. However, I can hear in your voice you think we are only going to admit 2,022 of our applicants. And, WTF?!…   

See back in your Ex Ample Labs, your highly caffeinated team of analysts has been looking over EXAMPLE’s historical Yield Rate (number or percentage of students who say YES to an offer of admission).  

Predicting yield allows you to determine how many students you need to admit, i.e. your Admit Rate (number or percentage of students admitted from those who apply). 

After thrice replacing the calculator batteries, they’ve determined EXAMPLE’s yield rate is close to the national average of 35% (Although, in reality, not all students yield at the same rate. For instance, at Georgia Tech students from our state yield at approximately 68%, whereas non-residents typically yield closer to 30%).  

If Example College only admits 2,022 (10%) students, and they yield at 35%, the new class would be 708~. Great for faculty: student ratio. Great for social distancing. Not great for the EXAMPLE’s bottom line, nor for you Dean, as evidenced by the moving boxes and pink slip which would quickly arrive in your office.  So…What the Funnel?! 

Therefore, EXAMPLE will need to admit 5780 students to hit the 2,022 target. Admit Rate= 28.6%~ 

But wait, there’s more (or less, actually).

Dean, I hate to tell you this, but some of those kids who tell you they’re coming…yea, they won’t.  

This is where in the summer you will go to your waitlist to admit a few more students, in order to account for the final piece of the admission funnel—Melt Rate (number/percentage of deposited or confirmed students do not ultimately enroll). See, even after students hold their spot with a deposit or intent to enroll form, even after they apply for housing or attend registration, even after they post to Instagram and buy the hoodie, some do not show up. This occurs for a variety of reasons– they come off the waitlist somewhere else; they get cold feet about going so far from home (or staying to close to it); they break up with their boyfriend and no longer want to attend the same school, and the list goes on.  

Like yield rates, Melt Rate also varies based on distance from the college, socio-economic status, left handers versus right handers, eye color, and music preferences (the percentage of aforementioned factors which were fabricated is called the BS Rate). Colleges build all of this into their models. At Georgia Tech, we lose about 2% of our students from Georgia post-deposit, 8% non-Georgia, and 15% international (again, there is variation by specific state and nation).  

If EXAMPLE College has an overall melt rate of 5%, how many total deposits would they need to hit their target? 

A: 6000 

B: 2022 

C: 2128 

D: I was told there would be no math in these blogs. 

E: The Answer is always C  (especially when it is so specific)  


What does this mean for you? First, you now have a limited-edition decoder to the esoteric language of admission-speak.  

Second, you have an opportunity to ask some very astute questions to admission folks this year.  

What was your admit rate last year?  

Has that been increasing or decreasing? And why? 

How did your admit rate vary between Early Decision (ED) and Regular Decision (RD)?  

Are you saying you have an ED problem? 

Is your institution planning to have a class the same size as last year or larger? And why?  

What do you think this year’s class goal will mean for the number of admits or yield based on students from my (state, major, insert your demographic of interest here)? 

How many students came off your waitlist last year (or over the last few years) and when does waitlist activity typically occur?  

Love the funnel? You can dig in more by Googling “School Name + Common Data Set” and scrolling to Section C.   

Hopefully, this information will help you join the fight against misinformation and confusion when you hear someone throw out an admit rate or an application total as the complete story of any institution. Because, you know what? The Funnel!    

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Executive Director of Strategic Student Access at Georgia Tech. He has served on a number of national advisory and governing boards at the state, regional, and national level. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and a companion workbook published under the same title. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college