College faces declining admissions yield rates in Northern Virginia counties

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LULU DAWES / THE FLAT HAT

common perception among students at the College of William and Mary is that many undergraduates hail from Northern Virginia, a geographically small but populous section of the state bordering Washington, D.C. While admissions data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia indicate that students from Northern Virginia are a sizable population of in-state students on campus, the College’s ability to matriculate prospective students from Northern Virginia has declined over the past 14 years.

In the college admissions process, yield refers to the percentage of first-time college students that receive an offer of admission from a university and decide to enroll. According to data from 2005 to 2019, the College experienced declines in its yield of prospective students from Northern Virginia. Growing percentages of high school students from Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington Counties — which the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce describes as the region’s core jurisdictions — received offers from the College and subsequently did not matriculate as students in Williamsburg.

In the 2018–19 application cycle, the College’s yield rates of these four Northern Virginia counties were relatively low compared to those present in the mid-2000s. The highest yield rate was in Fairfax County, where 35.5 percent of in-state students admitted to the College ultimately chose to become students here. 

During the 2005–06 admissions cycle, the College had an average yield rate of 50 percent with students in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William Counties. In Prince William and Loudoun Counties, more than half of students who received an offer from the College ultimately matriculated here, with yield rates of 53.4 percent and 53.6 percent respectively. 

Dean of Admission Tim Wolfe said that the College’s declining yield rates in Northern Virginia during the past decade mirror national trends at universities across the United States. Prospective college students have begun submitting higher numbers of college applications in recent years, causing many universities to experience lagging yield rates since students have more options to consider — and more colleges to reject — when making their college choice.

Wolfe confirmed that this trend has affected the College and yield rates have declined throughout Northern Virginia in recent application cycles.

“We are competing not only with places in Virginia, but places nationally for enrolling students,” Wolfe said. “You’re talking about students who have some fantastic opportunities and offers.”

Student Services Director at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County Robyn Lady ’ 90 echoed Wolfe’s sentiments by illustrating the many options available to her competitive high school students in Northern Virginia. She referenced improving “college search” skills as a partial contributor to the College’s struggle to matriculate students at Chantilly, since they are becoming increasingly adept at finding competitive funding packages and offers from universities across the country.

“I’ve got people who have turned down UVA or William and Mary because they got a full ride for Alabama in engineering,” Lady said. “People are understanding that they can actually save money by going out of state because kids admitted to UVA and William and Mary are phenomenal kids that other state and private schools would love to steal from the state of Virginia.”

“I’ve got people who have turned down UVA or William and Mary because they got a full ride for Alabama in engineering,” Lady said. “People are understanding that they can actually save money by going out of state because kids admitted to UVA and William and Mary are phenomenal kids that other state and private schools would love to steal from the state of Virginia.”

For Virginia students that do choose to stay in state for school, the College has consistently underperformed rival University of Virginia’s yield of Northern Virginian students. While both the College and UVA are selective, in-state “Public Ivies,” UVA’s yield rates outpace the College’s in every admissions cycle from 2005 to 2019 in all four core Northern Virginia counties.

Lady attributed the discrepancy between UVA and the College’s yield rates to the perceptions of the two universities by Northern Virginia residents. 

In her time working with prospective students at Chantilly, Lady said that high schoolers persistently imagine the College as academically rigorous and stressful, while students tend to view UVA as a better balance between a good education and a traditional ‘college experience’. Lady connected the College’s low yield at Chantilly to these beliefs. 

“… Their lowest yield, UVA’s, is 58 percent,” Lady said. “Our highest yield for William and Mary is 35 percent. I definitely think that differential is the perceived experience at the two institutions. One is perceived as much more rigorous and not very fun, and one is perceived as a lot of fun, great sports, and also great education.”

In 2018–19, UVA had a 57.8 percent yield of students in Fairfax County, compared with the College’s 35.5 percent yield. In Arlington County, the differential between UVA and the College is starker: 54.3 percent of students accepted to UVA matriculated there, compared with just 23.9 percent of students at the College.

From his perspective, Wolfe said that differentials between the College’s and UVA’s Northern Virginia yield rates primarily originate from two factors: affordability and demographic change. According to Wolfe, the College’s ongoing “William & Mary Promise” initiative has been effective in lowering tuition and room and board rates for Virginia residents demonstrating financial need since its initiation in the early 2010s. While the initiative has made the College one of the most affordable in-state options for lower and middle-income students, students without demonstrated financial need often face costs at the College that outpace UVA’s fees by several thousand dollars.

According to Wolfe, this price difference may have contributed to the College’s stalling yield rates, particularly among families without financial need who are ineligible for the “William & Mary Promise” — many of whom live in affluent regions like Northern Virginia.

“For students that don’t have financial need defined by the federal methodology … William and Mary is more expensive,” Wolfe said. “… For entering first-year students this year at William and Mary, the cost of tuition, fees, room and board is close to $8,000 more than entering students at the University of Virginia. That price difference has grown some, particularly over the past decade … that has probably had a little bit of an impact.”

“For students that don’t have financial need defined by the federal methodology … William and Mary is more expensive,” Wolfe said. “… For entering first-year students this year at William and Mary, the cost of tuition, fees, room and board is close to $8,000 more than entering students at the University of Virginia. That price difference has grown some, particularly over the past decade … that has probably had a little bit of an impact.”

Wolfe said that demographic shifts in Northern Virginia have also contributed to yield gaps between the College and UVA, as influxes of families and prospective students from diverse backgrounds bring new perspectives on the admissions process. To some families from outside the country, the College’s small, intimate setting may be mismatched with their expectations of a traditional university experience, potentially contributing to the College’s declining yield of students from diverse portions of the state.

“It’s a changing population and a changing demographic, where you have students and families who are new to the region, new to the area, often new to the country,” Wolfe said. “… Particularly the case in Northern Virginia, when you consider some of the growth there, you have a number of students and families where parents grew up overseas or attended university overseas, and their original impression or understanding of the university system is one where ‘university’ and ‘larger university’ means one thing, whereas a place that’s called ‘college’ means something different.”

In addition to first-generation families, Lady added that wealthy families — which are relatively common in Northern Virginia — also approach college admissions from a unique perspective. Some families’ willingness to pay tuition at private or out-of-state schools weakens the College’s selling point as an affordable in-state option since prospective students can fund their education elsewhere.

“There’s certainly a plethora of affluent people in the Northern Virginia area who even if their kid just wants a different experience and has to pay full rate for it,” Lady said, “… the kids from this area are phenomenal and have worked incredibly hard to earn the admissions that they’ve earned, and it’s typical that they also have other selective schools among their options.”

Facing rising competitiveness, Wolfe said that the College will maintain extensive recruitment efforts in Northern Virginia. While he noted that he and his fellow admissions representatives strive to visit every high school in the area as part of their recruitment agenda, Wolfe argued that the College’s branding is vital — and suggested that small steps like referencing the College as a ‘university’ in promotional material can play key roles in bringing the region’s competitive applicants back into the fold in Williamsburg.

Lady suggested that the College should confront its misperceptions in general to combat declining yield rates in Northern Virginia.

“That’s the other issue: we don’t get airtime,” Lady said. “… That’s the problem. UVA, from the lens of students and parents, is a great school and great education, and I think that it’s in that order. I think when you talk about William and Mary, they’re like ‘Oh God, it’s so hard’ … that’s what I hear whenever I try to talk to people.”

Methods:

This article compared the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia since both schools are selective, public in-state schools characterized as “Public Ivies.” The Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce defines the region of Northern Virginia as Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William Counties, as well as the independent cities of Manassas, Manassas Park, Falls Church, Fairfax City and Alexandria. Since independent cities have relatively small pools of prospective students and subsequently feature fluctuating yield rates, they are excluded from this analysis and only the four counties are evaluated.

This article used data from the State Council of Higher Education, which details Virginia’s in-state admissions from 2005 to 2019.

Editor’s Note: Data Editor Leslie Davis ’21 and Data Associate Editor Matt Lowrie ’22 created data visualization graphics for this article.