Grey City » Q & A

Q&A: Jim Nondorf

Nondorf says that he is no longer asked whether UChicago is "where fun goes to die."
Photo: Sydney Combs/The Chicago Maroon

For the first time this fall, almost every student in the College will have been admitted under Jim Nondorf, who took over as vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid in July 2009. During Nondorf’s time leading admissions, interest in the College has soared; overall applications have more than doubled, the yield rate of accepted students who choose to matriculate has increased, and the College’s acceptance rate has declined to 8.8 percent this year. Nondorf has also overseen a significant expansion of financial aid resources, including a nearly $40 million increase in the overall financial aid budget since 2009 and the launch of UChicago Promise, which converts loans to grants for all students with demonstrated need who attend the University from the city of Chicago.

Nondorf, who sang in the Whiffenpoofs as an undergraduate studying economics at Yale and still goes out to sing karaoke with his staff, sat down with Grey City to discuss financial aid, the College’s increasing popularity, and the death of “where fun goes to die.”

Grey City (GC): What are the challenges of expanding financial aid in a financial climate like the one we’re in now?

Jim Nondorf (JN): Well, I think that the biggest issue is post, despite, the financial crisis, where a lot of schools had been very aggressive prior to that, perhaps more aggressive than they should have been, and then struggling toward coming back to meet the programmatic promises that they’ve made, the University has really been thoughtful in that it continued to be moving forward. So I would say every year we have made improvements to financial aid in a whole variety of ways.

You always want to do more, and unfortunately it’s need-based aid, not want-based aid…. It would be great if we could just give everybody more…so it’s really choosing which policies or which things to do. And then you see what the actual results are. When you really model, you don’t know how much something is going to cost because you don’t know what the incoming freshman class is going to look like until you actually have a program, and then you can see what the results are. You want to do a lot, and you have to balance it with what you can afford.

You talk about what should we learn from our peers. One thing is there wasn’t that kind of, “Are we gonna be able to afford this in the long term?” for some schools, and now they’re paying the price for it. We want to make sure that everything we do, we can continue to do in the future.

GC: Where would you like to see financial aid go moving forward?

JN: Some of our bigger projects are more mundane right now. We’re moving online, and I think the big improvements this coming cycle are more back office things, which will allow us to really service the students a little better. So I think we’ll be able to give more of the students…at the time of their admission a more accurate and faster award. I think coming in and having to sign, you know there’s a lot of things that current students have to do that I think we’re gonna work on that area. For current students, there’s a lot of stuff that we’re trying to do.

In the not-too-distant future, I would like to look at the ranges for Odyssey, and that’s certainly something I’m going to be hoping to do in the future. I don’t know in the how-distant future that will be.

GC: You’ve met recently with students who have been pushing for a “no loan” policy. What have you learned from those meetings?

JN: We all share common goals of making sure that we’re supportive. Within that, we have whole sets of priorities and I think financial constraints that…we’re balancing. Where do we spend the best dollar? Even within financial aid, where do we spend the best dollar?

I think that we are affordable, and we make sure that every student can attend here…. Our loan average is way under everybody else’s. It’s $2,500 [less than the average] I believe. It’s $150 a month for a student loan payment. I think with a University of Chicago education, you should be able to afford $150 a month. That’s what I borrowed, and that was 20 years ago.

And everyone should have skin in the game. Parents contribute, students contribute, the school contributes, alumni contribute—I mean, everybody is putting something in to make sure that college is affordable.

GC: Why do you think so much of the campaign has centered on the fact that so many of our peer schools have no loan policies?

JN: Not that many, actually. Very few [laughs]…. You know, I don’t know. I think it’s an easy thing to talk about. In some ways, I think the highly selective schools do themselves a disservice by making any kind of loan feel like a bad thing to the families. You take out loans when you’re an adult. It teaches fiscal discipline; it teaches you [about] credit rating. You know there [are] a lot of good things about having reasonable, normal loans.

You know, I find that when I listen to parents, it’s like, “Oh my God, they should have no loans”…and we’re like, “It’s a small student loan. Most of America grew up that way.”

Where the jump goes are people that borrow $100,000 or something crazy. We would never advocate for that. No student should do that.

I mean, what we do for aid is so much better than 90 to 99.9 percent of universities and colleges. We meet the need. There [are] not many schools that do that, when you really think about it…. I mean, that’s an enormous commitment, when you think about it. Sight unseen, we’re saying anybody can come here and, based on the formulas for aid, we’ll meet everything you can’t afford, essentially.

GC: In your op-ed in the Maroon, you wrote that at a University “devoted to free inquiry…we cannot let finances be a bar to entry.” What is the relationship between the University’s mission toward inquiry and its attitude toward financial aid?

JN: I don’t know if it’s just the free inquiry, as much as we want the best and brightest minds engaging in this free inquiry. And if we’re only getting a wealthy family, wealthy students who can afford to come to your school, you’re entirely missing a section of the population, but you’re also missing different perspectives, which you need. You need people with different backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, areas of the country to add to that discussion, and we’re a very discussion-focused culture, and I think the more diverse we are in any way you can measure diversity, the better the conversation will be, the better solutions we’ll develop.

GC: Is there a challenge in doing that at a school that emphasizes the liberal arts, where students are encouraged to study learning for the sake of learning, not just learning so that they can have a lucrative career?

JN: The things I like most about the University and how we stand out amongst our peers right now is…I mean, I think many people say that they’re focused on a liberal arts curriculum and allowing their students to pursue whatever their academic passion is. But on top of that, we layer what I think is the most robust career advancement kind of operations.

I’ve begun to describe [Career Advancement programs] to guidance counselors, basically saying, “I don’t care whether you want to be an English major or a classics major or whatever you want to be.” Even [if] you want to go into the arts, there are jobs…. Really it sets us apart because we’re helping students no matter what they decide to do academically [so] that they can have a career. Those careers can match their academic passions or not—it doesn’t really matter. If you can essentially help people do that during their four years, there’s no reason you have to be an econ major or go work at Goldman Sachs to utilize your UChicago education and make money.

So the Metcalfs. That’s a great example. When I was in school, I had to go work during the summer because I was on financial aid. And I had to make a certain amount of money, or else I wouldn’t have the money for college. So that meant I either had to do some kind of labor job, or I had to go work at a bank or something. With the Metcalfs, with the arts, if you want to go work in the arts, we fund those Metcalfs. So even if you want to go and work for a nonprofit, there are nonprofit Metcalfs. Those companies can’t afford to pay you, so the University picks up about half of the Metcalfs. That’s kind of like a financial aid…not from a socioeconomic standpoint but from a career standpoint, because we want to help students pursue their passions even if those passions aren’t necessarily overly lucrative. And the way we enable that is basically making sure that you can get through your four years.

GC: When you see the yield of accepted students and the number of applications increasing, and the acceptance rate going down, what does that mean to you?

JN: When yield goes up and when applications go up, I feel really, really excited because it tells me that people in the United States are appreciating the University for what I think it is. I think in some ways maybe it was underappreciated, but at the very least now there’s recognition for what an amazing place it is. I think they knew it was an incredibly academic place, and it still is. That it’s also a place where we help people prepare for their career, where people come and enjoy themselves, perhaps not in the same way as at other schools, but they are having fun at Summer Breeze or Scav Hunt, or that zombie thing that goes on at the beginning of every quarter, which I find fascinating.

More applications [are] a sign to me that there is a growing appreciation for what we offer. A rigorous academic experience in a positive environment is highly sought after. I would say in yield, that’s even more exciting because it tells me that the best and brightest who get into the University of Chicago and lots of other schools…think we are the best fit for them. There [are] two reasons that I like that. One of the reasons is that [that] tells me that when you look at comparable schools—the other ivies or West Coast, Stanford, or MIT, Caltech, all these different schools—they think that we are just as good or better from a public standpoint. But it also tells me that my admissions officers are doing a good job reading files and admitting students who are a good fit for our kind of education. You know, in many ways, it’s all about the fit: the students who are going to make the most of a UChicago education, not just a highly selective education.

GC: What are some of the things you hear in high schools now that are different from when you started?

JN: Oh, gosh. Well, you know, I don’t hear, “Is this where fun goes to die?” that often, I have to say. The fun dying has died, which is great. Or it’s being resurrected here [laughs].

What’s nice about us is that we’re not the same as every other school. The kids who want our kind of education, who are rigorous and really love to learn, they’re gonna get that vibe and they will apply, I think followed by we’ll love them, and they’ll accept. And the students who aren’t a great fit, they’ll know it too.

I always laugh: People fly in here to Chicago, and they’ll visit our northern friends up there [Northwestern] and us. And you can usually tell when a student has visited one and they left there early and came. Or [if] they came here fairly early on, you can tell: “Oh, that student was probably happier up there.”

GC: Next year, all four classes in the College will have been admitted by you. How do you think the College is different now than it was when you started?

JN: When all of the classes have been admitted by you as the dean of admissions, that’s like a huge deal. Because then pretty much everybody you see you’ve interacted with a few times before.

Another big thing is that there are more of you now than when I first got here. That had something to do with being slightly over-admitted the last couple of years [laughs]. I would say those are the big differences: There’s more of you, and just knowing a lot more of you just makes it feel more homey for me personally, I would say.

I don’t think there are a lot of other differences in terms of faculty who love you guys…. In fact, I get a lot of compliments about the quality of the students. Students seem as happy, happier even…. I feel there’s more energy.

GC: The last few years, the yield rate has exceeded what was projected. What are the challenges of admitting a class but also looking at realistic accommodations for student life?

JN: Because I was slightly over last year, I really shot high this year in my yield predictions. And of course we hit those yield predictions. I mean, I wasn’t really predicting that number; I was like, “Well, I’ll take this percentage, and then I’ll just take students from the waitlist because we’ll never go up that much again.” And then we did. And a little more [laughs]. So I’m hoping that a few students will take gap years over the summer, which they usually do. I mean, the yield has gone up almost 20 points in four years.

It affects the admit rate dramatically as well. So I’m admitting about 1,000 less students than I would have admitted a couple of years ago, which is kind of a downer. Part of having a high yield is that you don’t give out as many offers of admission.

GC: Why do you think that admissions statistics get big sexy headlines, and then financial aid doesn’t grab that much attention?

JN: You know, you’re right, and that’s disappointing. When we say we’re spending $100 million on aid for students at the undergraduate level, we should get more kudos for that. That should be more exciting to people. You know, the fact that we can only admit less than 10 percent of the applicants isn’t as exciting as the fact that we’re spending $100 million on the ones who are coming here…but there [are] a lot of things about the media attention that tends focus on the negatives or the scary things, and not [on] the positives. I guess there could be one of those human-interest stories where there’s a cat hanging in the tree, and then the $100 million doesn’t sound very exciting. So I would say that’s one of the big ones.

Because if you look at trends, our admit rate and our application changes are not that different from the tripling of the financial aid budget. They’re all fairly significant and have taken place over a relatively significant, short period of time. I’ve never really thought of it that way until just now.

You know what? I actually think we got enormous positive feedback and press around the UChicago Promise. Like that’s an example of…something we’re doing that’s costing a lot of money, spending a lot of resources on our home city, and that actually we did pretty well. I get actually stopped by random people. I wear Chicago gear around—we like T-shirts around here—and I’d say once every couple of weeks when I’m walking around the South Loop in my UChicago T-shirt, somebody is like, “Hey, I just heard about this thing,” and that’s really nice.

GC: I wanted to ask you about UChicago Promise. Why did you choose to launch it in the economy that we’re in when the school is already so popular?

JN: Well, I think that it’s a combination of things. One of them is that the economy is not so great. And when that’s what you read in the paper all the time, if you’re a student, or parents of students, you can be thinking that a place like Chicago is out of your reach. But the reality is that a lot of top-tier schools are very interested in these kinds of kids. So I would say that now is the right time to do it.

The reality is that we do a lot for the city of Chicago already, and I’m surprised more people didn’t know all the things we did. This was an opportunity to do something highly impactful and draw attention to the fact that it’s not just that we’re doing this, but we’re doing a whole suite of things to help young people across the city.

I’d say the catalyst or the spark that really lit it was the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher strike. It’s a great example of why I have the best office in the entire country. I was away, I was gone recruiting—I think I was in New York—and I get an e-mail from one of my admissions officers who reads CPS, that says, “You know they’re on strike and the kids are gonna have nothing to do, and I’m sure that the seniors are starting to worry that they’re not getting any guidance for getting into colleges. Why don’t we invite all the kids to come to campus? We’ll do essay writing workshops, filling out financial aid workshops, and we’ll do filling out the Common App workshops.” So we e-mailed. Literally they put it together in a day. And then we sent the e-mail out, and then the following Tuesday, while they were still on strike, we had hundreds of kids from all over the city come to campus and we essentially became the college counselors for all these students.

And it was so well received and the feedback was so great; the mayor was so appreciative. We were like, “You know, we could do more things like this.” We have a lot of expertise in this area, we’re not trying to tell them all they should come here, but we’re trying to tell them that they should go to college and that many of them will probably get into really good colleges, and really good colleges have a lot of money to support them in getting there. It’s kind of a multi-pronged attack.

Now we’re running these counselor academies. They’ve been incredibly successful, in terms of high school counselors coming to campus and doing training programs with them.

My favorite story of this one is…doing the posters of the UChicago Promise announcement. I gave the admissions officers the day off and had them drive around the city and hand-deliver them to the schools. One of the schools, the officer was in there talking to the person at the front desk, and the principal overheard it and was so excited about it that she took the person into his office, and got on the speaker and essentially shut the school down and was like, “I want to tell you about this exciting new program that the University of Chicago has just launched.”

It’s all good. You know, this one there’s no hidden agenda. Even if they decide not to come. The nice thing is that we have seen a lot of really wonderful students applying this year, and actually every good deed should get some positive, and so my yield in Chicago was much higher this year. So we did a good thing, and there were nice results.

GC: What have you learned about the University since you’ve started?

JN: Oh god, so many things. Probably the first one, which probably took the most getting used to, was the inquiry and discussion. Highly desired discussion aspects of the University, which I remember at my first staff meeting, covering one policy I was planning to review and change, and two hours later we were still talking about it. And I remember thinking, “Well, I thought I was the boss here. Don’t I just get to tell them this is what we’re doing and we’re doing it?” So I think that there is a discussion on most topics. And it does a review, although it is exhausting.

I mean, I know a lot more about the University just from a historic standpoint, going to a lot of Dean Boyer’s presentations and things and College Council meetings. I grew up in Hammond, Indiana, which is just over the border, but I didn’t know anything about the University of Chicago until I got here. And what I did know, I only knew from my admissions officers at other schools, and what I did know from that wasn’t overly positive.

Almost everything has been a pleasant surprise. I haven’t made it to, but I really want to go to, the Latke-Hamantashen Debate, but at least I know what they are, which is a step in the right direction. I’m learning more than I thought I would ever continue to learn at my age. I mean, I know more about how the hospital is run, or the different areas. The nice thing about being at the University and engagement and all the discussion is that people tell you actually the details. You learn about what’s going on. When someone is explaining to me about how this works, they’re telling you; they’re not just kind of saying, ‘Oh, I handle this,” or something, so I’ve learned a lot more about things that aren’t in my area.

GC: How do you stay engaged with a student culture that you’re communicating about?

JN: I’m probably one of the two vice presidents of enrollment, probably the only one; that would be my guess. I read and I recruit. I visited Stuyvesant [High School] this year, and I visited Horace Mann, New Trier [High School], and [University of Chicago] Lab [High School]. So I get to know students. I read and I have a reading load. My reading load, actually because my area grew—I had almost 200 applications from Stuy this year—that I actually had read more than some of my admissions officers, because we had a lot.

Placement is important, in terms of where my office is. The door is always open, and almost all of the tour guides—I don’t know if you know any of them—but they come wandering in and chitchat. That’s nice. I go to functions, I go to games, I try to just be out and about. And for the most part, any student who shoots me an e-mail and asks, “Oh, can I come in and talk to you about something, or give you an update on something?” I try and find time [for]. I’d say almost once a week, I have a breakfast or lunch or a coffee or something with a student to catch up on something. I spend a lot more time on career things these days, if students are interested in going into this field or that field. I think there [are] just a lot of students. We probably have four or five times as many student workers in our office as we did before I got here. And so that is great, interacting with them at all times. I have dinner with the PSAC (Prospective Student Advisory Committee) board.

GC: Is there anything about students here that has surprised you or stood out to you?

JN: People here are witty. They are very witty and clever. And can do more work in a short period—I actually think you guys are at your best when—the more work you have, the more impressive the results, I think. You know, [for] my admissions officers who are alums, I find that in crunch time, amazing things happen. When they’re less busy, that’s when you have to go looking for them. And I think that’s the way around the campus too. When you guys are in crunch mode, you guys do amazing things. When you’re not, that’s when you wind up in the Dean of Students’ office or something [laughs]—no, there’s not much of that here.

GC: You studied economics; you were in the tech industry. How did you get into admissions?

JN: After I finished my time in tech, I actually moved to Florida, and started a charter school with my friend from Yale…. I was loving it…I taught social sciences, and I coached, and I taught music, which is what you do at a charter school.

I will say that the problem with charter schools, some of them, is that the parents had very high demands that you would expect of private school parents, but charter schools don’t have the resources of private schools. So it can be very draining on the teachers. So after a few years of that, I thought I would spend a few years giving back to my alma mater, and I contacted friends that I knew at Yale, and I said, “You know, my background is in all these different things. Do you think I’d be good at anything?” And they said, “Yeah, try development or admissions.”

Actually, my first job at Yale, they hired me…in the major gifts office. So I did a year of fundraising, and one of the gifts I raised was in the area of admissions, and I got to know the dean, and the dean had this new job, had never existed before, called the director of outreach, and they were looking for someone who knew Yale really well, who understood technology, understood marketing, and I was a good fit for that, and so then they hired me to do that.

And probably the best thing that happened to me was that in addition to having that role, I was also associate director of admissions. I had a territory, and that was my first exposure to reading and presentation and giving talks to the students, and after my first year, I was like, “This is awesome. What a great job. I’m going to do this as a career now.” So that’s how I ended up in admissions.

GC: And then you were at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)?

JN: Yes.

GC: I know that one thing you’ve said you were really proud of there is the way that you were able to recruit women. Tell me a little bit about how and why you did that.

JN: When I got there, and this is pretty common when you get to new jobs like mine, the hope is that the president, or the trustees or whoever is hiring you, [has] goals for what they’d like the student body to look like. In my case…[Shirley Ann] Jackson, who was the president of RPI…laid out a whole set of things that we were hoping to achieve, and one of them was to improve the male-female ratio of the student body. It’s known for being an engineering school, in low times it was 25/75, 75 percent boys. Now that has negative impacts on social life, one can imagine, and we wanted more women engineers; I mean, there’s a lot of reasons. Going back to that earlier discussion about the importance of diversity, you know when you look at an engineering problem and everybody is a male in the room, there would be other ways of looking at it, and that would [come from] those female engineers. So that was one of my goals, to get it to be in the 40 percent.

You have to develop communications that resonate with [women] more. Most of our e-mail or anything we do from a communications standpoint, we shop around to the students who work in the office and are like, “Do you like this? Is this clever? Is this funny?”

We had a lot of the…women who were chosen at RPI working in the office, and they were helping us do a better job of talking about the school and appealing to young ladies who’d be interested in this kind of education.

There, they used scholarships to appeal, so I would say it was a good year to be a female student…and then you visit all the girls schools. You make that a priority for your admissions officers, so it’s a whole host of things. You make sure that you, for admitted student days and things like that…have enough programming…. You make sure that they know that they’d be comfortable on the campus.

GC: What did you take away from that that you applied here?

JN: I think what I probably took away from it that I applied is that if you are purposeful about what you’re trying to achieve, you know, like to see other students from other parts of the country, you can do that: You have to create a plan. Things don’t just happen. You have to actually think about how you want to talk about the school, what areas are you going to visit. All of these things are very achievable, but you have to have a plan and execute it. I could have sat at RPI and wished for a lot more girls to apply and come, but usually that’s not successful.

GC: Is there anything else from your experience at the charter school or in tech that you were able to apply?

JN: In tech, probably a lot. I mean, I think we have a great system…. It’s also our outreach system, so it enables [admissions officers] to interact with students a lot. You guys may remember, when you got admitted, you did it online. The importance of social media. I’m probably more comfortable with my admissions officers using technology in a lot of different and creative ways than some of my peers would be because I’ve had a lot of iterations with technology over my time.

GC: What do you do in your free time?

JN: What would I do if I had free time [laughs]? Well, my siblings live in Valparaiso still; one’s a fire chief, and the other one’s a dentist. And I’m actually a member of the Valparaiso country club with my brother who’s a dentist. And so I like to play golf, [which] tells you how little free time I have. I love to play golf, and play eight to 10 times a year.

I still actually have my home outside of Albany, and I like to go there and just relax…. I spend a lot of time going to dinners, and hosting things; last night, Sunday, I hosted guidance counselors. This coming Friday night, I’m hosting another set of guidance counselors. Saturday, I’m spending the day with them. So that doesn’t leave a lot of free time. Luckily I like the guidance counselors. It’s not terrible; it just doesn’t leave a lot of free time.

I sang in the Whiffenpoofs at Yale…and I occasionally go out karaoke-ing with my young staff.

GC: I can’t imagine what that’s like.

JN: [laughs] You would be surprised how many of the admissions officers are really good singers.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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