Most colleges are non-profits with unclear ownership status so their incentives do not lead to simple profit-maximization. Don’t be fooled, however, neither do colleges maximize student welfare or the public good. Instead colleges pursue some index of free cash flow, prestige, and administrative and faculty independence. The result is some peculiar outcomes. Most businesses, for example, don’t want to reject customers but colleges often encourage students to apply so that they can reject them. The Washington Monthly’s college issue has an excellent primer, Ten Ways Colleges Work You Over, that explains:
The aim of the game for colleges is to boost the number of students who apply and can be rejected. By doing this, the schools see their acceptance rates fall, making them appear to be more selective—which helps them rise up the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
Take Northeastern University in Boston… [which] sends nearly 200,000 personalized letters to high school students each year. The institution then follows up these letters with emails, making it seem that the school is wooing these individuals.
… Nearly 50,000 students applied to Northeastern this year for 2,800 spots in the fall 2014 class…
Lowering its acceptance rates is at least one factor in why Northeastern has catapulted up the U.S. News rankings, rising more than 100 spots since 2002.
Profit-maximization (or maximization of free cash flow) is also not absent from the process. Many schools, for example, say they are need blind but that just means that admission officers don’t know the student’s income. Admissions officers, however, do know lots of information that is highly correlated with income including where applicants live, what high school they attended and the occupations of the applicants parents–not exactly what I would call blind.
Schools even use seemingly arbitrary bits of information to increase their revenues. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, for example, has students list the colleges that they are interested in applying to. Although the order is irrelevant, students often list in preferential order and the colleges see this information. As a result, colleges have an incentive to offer students who list their college first less financial aid simply because that is an indication that the student has a high demand for that college.