[img id="80769" align="alignleft"] When Michael Behnke began his tenure as vice president and dean of College enrollment 11 years ago, the College was relatively unknown outside the world of academia. Last month, Behnke announced his intention to retire from the University at the end of the current academic year. When he departs the University in July, Behnke will leave a College dramatically unlike the one he came to at the beginning of his University tenure.
During his time at the University, Behnke spearheaded new recruitment initiatives through direct mail, e-mail, increased travel, and revamped the admissions publications. Retrospectively, Behnke said that one of the greatest outreach challenges the Admissions Office faced during the past decade was finding creative ways of raising awareness about the College among potential applicants.
“Considering how prominent we are in higher education in certain circles such as the business world, we were really not well known to the public at large, so we had a real challenge,” Behnke said.
“We have a name that sounds like a state school, and many schools with the name of the city are often Roman Catholic schools. And we’re in the Midwest, which is not a big media center. We’re not Division-I football. So there are a number of challenges we have just in terms of getting on people’s radar screen. So just getting your name in front of more students is really important,” he added.
As a result of the office’s outreach efforts, the College saw a 124 percent increase in applications—from 5,520 to 12,409 over 11 years—and significantly increased selectivity by reducing the admit rate from 61 percent to 28 percent. Additionally, Behnke’s efforts have been credited with enabling the College to matriculate stronger student bodies in recent years, evidenced by the jump in average SAT scores of the College’s entering classes. During Behnke’s tenure at the Admissions Office, the average verbal score increased from 671 to 709 and the average math score increased from 678 to 705.
Surveys about student perception of the College conducted through the College Board have consistently shown that the main reasons accepted students opt to enroll elsewhere revolve around negative conceptions about College social life, Behnke said. He added that stronger entering classes have helped to ameliorate the common perception that the College offers a dearth of fun for students.
“Students here, for the most part, are leading lives that are quite different than they did 10 or 15 years ago. College life has changed quite dramatically for the better.… And I think that one reason why the University of Chicago had a reputation of students studying all the time…students being unhappy, was because I think we had a lot of students who were in over their heads [academically],” he said.
“The class that came in ’98, the admit rate was 61 percent and that’s not very selective. That means a lot of students had us at their fourth or fifth choice… and we had a relatively high drop-out rate. Our drop-out rates used to run around 20 percent—so one of five students would leave—for a long time actually,” Behnke said.
Today the College’s retention rate is around 90 percent.
When Behnke arrived at the College in 1998, the undergraduate body comprised two very different kinds of students, and while Behnke said that the College has always attracted academically gifted and intellectually curious students, a significant portion of the entering student body was not prepared to tackle the College’s demanding coursework.
“The interesting thing about the University of Chicago is that the top of the class has always been superb,” he said. “But the bottom 20, 30 percent of the class was always very weak. That was eliminated in a year. There was immediate impact, and the faculty felt it immediately as well.”
Behnke recalled that his wife, Lee Behnke, a senior lecturer in the Classics department and the current director of the undergraduate Latin program, immediately noticed the effects of the admissions initiatives in the classroom.
“She was really struck by the disparity in her classes between students who were really stellar and students who were stuggling,” he said. “Now that’s not true. They’re all as good as [those at] the top now. So it was a dramatic change. I think we just have students [now] who can handle the academics more easily.”
As the application process becomes increasingly selective, Behnke said that applicant pools tend to reflect students from increasingly wealthy families. In order to ensure a diverse undergraduate body, the Admissions Office undertook outreach to minority students, international students, and students from low-income families.
“We have a very solid commitment to need-blind admissions,” he said. “We have many more international students, many more students of color, which makes [the College] a much more stimulating educational environment.”
For the first time, this year’s entering College class boasts more than 100 black students—about eight percent, up from four percent 11 years ago. The number of international students per class has increased from 58 to 133. Additionally, this fall, the Admissions Office launched the Odyssey Scholarship Program, which replaces student educational loans with grant money for students with family incomes less than $60,000.
Despite the College’s expanded outreach efforts, Behnke said that the Admissions Office is committed to attracting and enrolling students who are serious about intellectual inquiry. Last year, when the College announced its decision to replace the Uncommon Application with the widely-used Common Application, many students anticipated that the switch would diminish the academic quirkiness of the incoming class. Behnke, however, tried to dispel those notions.
“The Uncommon Application is just a term. The only thing uncommon about our application is our essay questions. The other stuff—name, address, this and that activities—are also on the Common Application. The [University of Chicago] essays were around long before we had the term ‘the Uncommon Application’ and they’re still going to be around [in the supplement to the Common Application]. And so students who don’t want to tackle our essays questions won’t apply,” he said.
“Of course, we’re not going to change the type of students we choose, so I don’t think it’ll have a [negative] effect on the study body at all.”
Behnke anticipates two potential opportunities for his successor in the Admissions Office upon his departure.
“Assuming that Barack Obama wins the Presidency and Chicago wins the Olympics, the problem we had with visibility will be greatly lessened, and popularity is always both a problem and an opportunity,” he said. “So I would suspect that applications would increase dramatically and that will again result in pressure toward affluence—so the issue of making sure we have social diversity at the University will have to be addressed. And in the face of popularity, staying true to our educational values will need attention.”
Behnke and his wife will move to the Boston area upon Behnke’s retirement this summer. The Behnkes have family, including three grandchildren, in the New England area, and Lee will continue teaching after relocating.