The Great “Success” of the University of Chicago

Many people think that the University of Chicago’s admit rates have always been infinitesimal. But attached to its reputation for academic rigor was a sarcastic dig that the institution couldn’t shake: The place where fun comes to die. While the applicant pool at comparable schools in the northeast and far west grew exponentially, UChicago’s languished. But in 2005, its Board of Trustees decided to change all that. This engineered rise in the rankings tells us a lot about the business of college admission.

As recently as 2005, UChicago had a freshman acceptance rate of forty percent. Why so high? This institution was known for exactly what it was—a world-class center of learning for students who wanted an intellectually demanding experience. Its quarter system was a big draw for accomplished students and allowed them to pack even more classes into four years of undergraduate study. You didn’t apply to UChicago for the football or the weather. You applied because you craved the academics.

Then UChicago decided it didn’t like what it saw in the mirror, that being 15th on a popular ranking was an embarrassment. So it dumped its famous “Uncommon Application,” joined the Common App, hired an aggressive recruiter as its new Vice President for Enrollment, and partnered with an expensive marketing firm to re-brand itself and attract more applicants. Lots more applicants.

The makeover succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Simple arithmetic, really. As the glossy brochures hit the mailboxes and more students applied, the admit rate began to fall:

Year             Percent of Applicants Admitted

2005                                      40.3%

2006                                      38.5%

Robert Zimmer becomes President of the University

2007                                      34.9%

UChicago dumps the “Uncommon Application” and joins the Common App

2008                                      27.8%

2009                                      26.8%

James Nondorf hired as VP for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions

UChicago hires enrollment management firm Royall & Company

2010                                      18.4%

2011                                      15.8%

2012                                      13.3%

2013                                        8.8%

Today, UChicago stands alongside the most exclusive set of colleges with single digit acceptance rates. It’s risen to the top of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, tied for #3 with Columbia, MIT, and Yale. It’s the only college in twenty years to have infiltrated the top ten, a group that jockeys back and forth among themselves, but almost never allows a stranger to crash the party.

To me, this admission story is a sad one because students who belong at UChicago can no longer get in. The college isn’t any better than it used to be, and some would say that this new polished version is less distinguishable than it once was from its peer institutions. For the idealists among us—those who believe that colleges should celebrate what makes them unique and that applicants should apply to those colleges where they are a great fit—UChicago is one for the loss column.

But there’s plenty we can learn from this story. We should urge families to look further down the rankings at schools that admit thirty or forty percent or more, schools that haven’t yet hired their marketing firms for their assault on Mt. Olympus. Tomorrow’s UChicago is out there today, standing quietly on the playground, waiting to be found by students more interested in quality than popularity.

Jeff Levy, CEP