Huge rise in applications most dramatic in U.S.

Applications more than doubled since 2006, setting the University up for its lowest acceptance rate ever.

By Michael Lipkin

Applications poured into the U of C in record numbers this year, promising that competition for spots in the next first-year class will be fiercer than ever.

Admissions officials pointed to a host of factors to explain the overwhelming response—a 42 percent increase—from academic and student-life improvements over the past decade, a more aggressive marketing campaign, the recent move to the Common App, and even an “Obama factor.”

“All the investments we’ve made strengthening the College have come to fruition,” Dean of the College John Boyer said, referring to expanded study-abroad programs, Odyssey scholarships, and the millions spent on new buildings on campus.

Colleges across the country have also seen increases this year, mostly due to the poor economy, admissions experts said, but none as dramatic as the University’s. The recession caused more high school seniors to apply to more schools nationwide, especially ones with competitive financial aid packages.

Barmak Nassirian, an executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that while an increase at the U of C was expected, the 19,000 applications were “eye-popping.”

“Schools that always had the benefit of selectivity are now beginning to look more ideal since they have adequate resources to package people,” Nassirian said. “But this magnitude defies all expectations.”

Part of the surge is likely due to a concerted Admissions Office effort to provide more targeted information to prospective students. High school seniors now receive thematic e-mails on a variety of topics they’ve expressed interest in, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jim Nondorf said, including the city’s art scene, international programs, and Jewish activities on campus.

“The University of Chicago is an amazing school,” he said. “Why wouldn’t people around the world want to come here?”

Boyer called it an “aggressive, broad-brushed effort,” that provided more information than before about post-Core academic life at the University. “You’re not just choosing the first two years,” Boyer said, referring to the typical amount of time it takes to complete the Core. “It’s what the full range of your life is going to look like.”

The College saw gains in every demographic, Nondorf said, especially those in which the U of C “has not been as appreciated.” It was also the first year that any state (California) submitted more applications than Illinois, the University’s historic demographic base.

Nondorf and Boyer both said the U of C owed some of its recent popularity to its connection with Barack Obama. “Without a doubt, there was a lot of positive press about the University and Obama,” Nondorf said.

In many ways, Nondorf said, the University is closer to its Ivy League peers than ever before, including overall applications received and geographic distribution. While the U of C currently has the highest acceptance rate of its peer (27 percent) Nondorf said the jump in applicants means the rate should fall to 19 percent.

But those statistics don’t mean the U of C is trying to emulate the Ivies, Nondorf said. “I’m not gunning for them by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “I just want to reach out to every scholar in the country and let them make the decision if they’re a good fit.”

Boyer agreed that the U of C is closer to its peers than ever in recent years. Boyer compared the University with Columbia, which also features a core curriculum and defines itself by its urban environment. “I believe we’re a better university than they are, so I think we should get more applications than they do,” he said.

The applications were “just as high caliber” as the past few years, Nondorf said, denying that an applications spike diluted the applicant pool, something students on campus have worried about since the switch to the Common App was announced in 2006. “And even if students miss our message and don’t have academics first in their mind, we probably won’t read them as kindly.”

Sally Rubenstone, an adviser at popular admissions forum College Confidential, agreed that the Common App could only help the University. “I’m sure that there are some purists out there who perceive that the move to the Common App is not just a watering down, but a selling out,” she said in an e-mail interview. “ admissions officials still hold the strings.”

Many high school guidance counselors said their students responded well to the Admission Office’s outreach campaign. Stuyvesant High School in New York City, a perennial feeder school for the University, sent more applications than any other high school in the country, 102, nearly a 40-percent increase from last year.

Lake Forest High School, in Lake Forest, IL, had twice as many seniors apply this year than two years ago. College counselor Jacquie Berkshire attributed much of the increased interest to the connection her students felt with the U of C.

“The more directed mailings psychologically matter. They feel ‘Oh my gosh, do they really like me?’” she said. “They’re feeling the love.”