During a tour of the University of Chicago last summer, Phil Trout was floored when he heard a guide describe the institution a place for “all-around” students. After all, Mr. Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School, in Minnesota, had long held a much different view of the university. Like many counselors, he viewed Chicago as a particular kind of place for a particular type of student: quirky, cerebral, and literary. Years of experience affirmed his opinion that the university was a great match for students who fit such descriptions, and a not-so-good match for those who didn’t.
As I describe in a longer article (“Application Inflation”) this week, Chicago has embraced a strategy for growing its applicant pool. So far, that strategy is working, and the university’s fast becoming more selective. This concerns some high-school counselors. Why?
Over the last few months, I’ve put this question to more than a dozen counselors. Without fail, they’ve expressed strong concern about Chicago’s increasing selectivity. One described going through “withdrawal symptoms” since Theodore A. O’Neill, the university’s well-respected former dean of college admissions, stepped down last year. Others lamented that the university long known for its Uncommon Application had joined the Common Application, which, to some, was an all-too-ironic sign of these ultra-competitive times.
Mr. Trout suggests that Chicago has set out to fix something that wasn’t broken. “The classic good-but-not-great kid with a 3.2 grade-point average was not applying to Chicago,” he says. “So it didn’t matter that their acceptance rate was higher than other selective colleges.”
But it did matter to some of the university’s leaders. This summer, I interviewed John W. Boyer, who’s been dean of Chicago’s undergraduate college since 1992. Mr. Boyer earned a Master’s and Ph.D. at the university, and I can safely say that I’ve never heard anyone express deeper affection for a campus. He speaks of the university the way some people speak of lifelong friends, and he’s happy to give you a half-hour history lesson.
Mr. Boyer believed that the size of Chicago’s applicant pool—smaller than those of several Ivy League colleges—indicated that too few applicants and their families throughout the nation knew about the university. “It would be like going out and shopping for an automobile and not knowing anything about one of the very best cars on the market,” he said.
This concern wasn’t unfounded. Recently, I’ve talked to several Chicago students from the East and West Coasts who either said that they’d never heard of the University of Chicago before the university contacted them, or that they hadn’t held the institution in the same esteem as, say, Harvard or Stanford, until learning more about the place. “I want every bright kid in the nation to know about us,” Mr. Boyer says. “It’s not that we didn’t have enough of those—the students we had five years ago were terrific. But we’re using the admissions office to inform people about the university, to talk about the institution more broadly.”
This explanation raises interesting issues. For one thing, Mr. Boyer describes the complex nature of the modern admissions office: in addition to evaluating applicants, it promotes the university and its virtues on a national (if not global) scale. And admissions outcomes (measured in application totals, admission rates, and “yield”) shape the public’s perceptions of colleges. In turn, those perceptions can enhance colleges’ literal and figurative fortunes.
But how many people on the planet must know about a college and its offerings? And if a college is already blessed with a sufficient number of terrific students, what do the many varied opinions—or even misperceptions—of that college really matter?
“The university has had this schizophrenic relationship with its stature,” says Andre Phillips, former associate director of college admissions at Chicago. “On the one hand, it proudly embraces the idea that it’s an intellectual powerhouse and haven for scholarly work that has national and international implications. At the same time, you get this inferiority complex about not being spoken of in the same breath as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.”
Mr. Phillips, who helped grow and diversify Chicago’s applicant pool during his many years at Chicago, believes in the power of outreach. Nonetheless, he worries that the rapid expansion of Chicago’s applicant pool will diminish the institution’s ability to find and enroll those students who are the best fits. Yet James G. Nondorf, who became Chicago’s vice president and dean of college admissions and financial aid last year, insists that the opposite is true.
Mr. Nondorf describes the changes he’s made as attempts to capture the many different experiences students have at the university. I’ve heard Mr. Nondorf speak at two conferences this year, and both times he’s mentioned that Chicago has an honest-to-goodness football team, a fact that seems to surprise people. “Sometimes, schools can portray themselves as if there’s only one experience, but two people in the same class might have totally different experiences,” he says. “We do have a distinctive personality and culture, with deep thinkers and good writers, but some of the people who have those traits are comedians, and some are amazing athletes.”
This observation gets at a crucial question: how should a college convey its identity without pigeonholing itself? This challenge is especially complicated on a diverse campus where, as Mr. Nondorf says, different students will have a slew of different experiences. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Chicago’s new recruitment materials emphasize the campus as a the Land of And. “Rigor” and cool new dorms. Intellectual inquiry and career advising. A “feast for the mind” and “extracurricular enjoyment.”
In other words, Chicago’s recruitment pitches now sound a lot more like those of other highly-selective colleges. Depending on your view of the admissions landscape, this is either great news—or something to lament. Perhaps everyone involved has a point.
William M. Shain, a consultant who previously worked as an admissions dean at three private colleges, praises Chicago’s off-beat application essays and its “fit” ratings for applicants. He thinks students would be better off if more admissions offices used both.
Mr. Shain also believes the story of application booms at many colleges echoes a prevalent truth in college admissions . “When your institutional health is seen to depend on getting more applications,” he says, “what you can’t do anymore is decide you’re a niche market.”