College Comeback: The University of Chicago Finds Its Groove

U-TURN: For decades, undergraduates at the University of Chicago seemed to live by the ancient notion that scholars must “suffer into learning,” and over time applications and enrollment declined. As a result, school officials have worked to reinvent the place, and today Hyde Park has become a hot destination among students applying to the country’s top-tier colleges

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Donald Laackman arrived at the University of Chicago as a freshman in the fall of 1979, having been wait-listed by Yale and rejected by Princeton and Harvard. Though the U. of C. had been his safety school, the young Philadelphian came to admire its intellectual rigor. “There were intense intellectual debates every night at dinner,” Laackman says, “and they would go on sometimes for hours.”

Still, by the end of his sophomore year, Laackman was worn out by the intensity and eager for a breather in the real world. “Ronald Reagan, the pope, and John Lennon had all been shot, and I wanted to make a difference,” he recalls. He left for an internship with a gun-control group in Washington, D.C., even though the dean warned, “You really shouldn’t do that. We don’t like it when students leave.”

After a year off, Laackman returned to the school, but when he later went in search of help finding an after-college job, he got little. “There was no discussion of what you do with your liberal arts degree [other than] grad school or law school,” he says. When the Big Five accounting firm Arthur Andersen scheduled interviews on campus, Laackman recalls, he was the only student who signed up, so the firm canceled.

Years later, when his two children were infants, Laackman told his wife, a University of Illinois alumna, that he didn’t want their kids going to the University of Chicago. “I didn’t want them to go through all the pain I had gone through,” he explains.

For decades, pain seemed an essential element of the U. of C. undergraduate experience—or, in the words of David Nirenberg, a professor of medieval history and social thought, the school was “a locus of the Greek idea that you have to suffer into learning.” And in the 1990s, the school became known as the place “where fun comes to die” after Inside Edge magazine ranked 300 U.S. colleges and universities based on their potential for fun—and the U. of C. came in dead last.

These are not notions likely to lure large numbers of the nation’s most promising high-school seniors, and for a long time the U. of C. lagged behind other top-tier colleges in the number of applications received. But after about 15 years of deliberate changes in everything from the campus landscape and study-abroad opportunities to the pictures in admissions brochures, the U. of C. suddenly finds itself with a status that until recently was almost unthinkable: a hot school. Last year, applications for the 1,350 slots in the university’s class of 2014 totaled 19,340, more than double the number from four years before. Meanwhile, getting in became more than twice as hard: Only 18 percent of applicants got the nod, down from 38.5 percent four years earlier. Going back further, the contrast is even more dramatic: In 1993, when the size of the freshman class was far smaller, 77 percent of high-school seniors who applied got accepted.

The 18 percent acceptance rate doesn’t yet rival the selectivity of the Ivy League and a handful of other elite schools—Harvard took only 6.9 percent of 30,489 applicants in 2010—but it nonetheless places the U. of C. in select company. Duke accepted 14.8 percent of 26,770 applicants, for example, and Northwestern, which has also seen its popularity bloom in the last decade or so, accepted 23 percent of 27,615.

The U. of C. is “one of the top five out-of-state choices for our students,” says Treya Allen, coordinator of college and career readiness at University High School in Tucson, Arizona, picked by Newsweek in 2009 as one of the country’s best high schools. “This year we had about 40 seniors apply, and the University of Chicago is quickly becoming the place to be.”

This past January, the U. of C. announced that applications for the class of 2015 had set another record: 21,669, besting last year’s total by 12 percent. Other measures also reflect the college’s newfound popularity. Yield, or the proportion of students offered admission who ultimately enroll, was up 30 percent in 2009 compared with 1998. And the number of students who leave the college after the end of their first year has steadily decreased, from 12 percent in 1998 to 2 percent in 2010—a clear sign that the U. of C. can not only bring students in but keep them satisfied with life on campus.

In 1996, U.S. News & World Report ranked the U. of C. 11th among undergrad programs at the nation’s elite universities; the school has now been in the top ten for four years, this year tied (with Dartmouth and Duke) at ninth. That’s no small move, notes Bob Morse, the magazine’s director of data research, who’s been involved with its college rankings since the late 1980s. “It takes a lot to move three or four places, because of the competition,” he says.

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Illustration: Nazario Graziano/colagene.com

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