Happy U.

Once a sleepy commuter school, DePaul is on a roll. It boasts new facilities and some of the happiest students anywhere—and is now the largest Catholic university In the country. But has growth come at a cost?

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Haris Mirza has a few more papers due before the end of the week and he suspects he has just flunked his art history final. “I’m pretty positive that I failed it,” says the DePaul University freshman, sitting on a bench outside the Schmitt Academic Center, enjoying a post-exam break and looking out over the grassy Lincoln Park quad. Given the circumstances, he seems remarkably relaxed. He talks about what a great first year he’s had at DePaul, how diverse and challenging the school environment has been, and how excited he will be to come back in the fall.

Why shouldn’t he be? He’s got a cadre of friends here from high school, an apartment just off campus (thanks to parents who didn’t want him going all the way to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and a summer job working for his dad.

Mirza’s sense of well-being is apparently being replicated all over the booming DePaul campus. Twice in the past six years, DePaul undergraduates have been named the “happiest” in the nation in a survey conducted by ThePrinceton Review. The school’s focus on students and preprofessional coursework is known as far away as England. And DePaul has doubled the size of its undergraduate enrollment without giving up an emphasis on kids who are the first in their families to get an advanced degree.

“I don’t want to sound corny or anything, but DePaul really is a great place to be,” says Mirza. Then his cell phone rings and he’s off to meet up with friends.

Once a poky, low-profile commuter school, over the past 15 years DePaul has built up a beautiful campus in Lincoln Park, established a substantial outpost downtown, and transformed itself into the largest Catholic university in the country. Remarkably, this explosive expansion has unfolded pretty much as intended. Richard Meister, a self-described “crazy liberal arts dean,” put much of the initial plan together on a computer spreadsheet 18 years ago. “The strategy was to build on three intangibles-name recognition because of basketball, location in gentrifying Lincoln Park, and a high-quality faculty,” he says.

Even as the school has grown in size and reputation, DePaul has remained committed to its Vincentian mission of education and student diversity. Without being self-consciously religious about it, DePaul offers a private Catholic education with relatively small classes taught mostly by faculty. The school features lots of internships, many of them offered through the more than 80,000 Blue Demon alums in the area. As David Kalsbeek, DePaul’s head of “enrollment management” (known at less happy institutions as “admissions"), puts it, “What DePaul really stands for is an institution that’s going to give you a tremendous advantage in your career pursuits.” Translation: Go here and you’re gonna get a job.

The school is also known nationally for its marketing, branding, and recruiting savvy. When the admissions process was still a passive endeavor for most schools, DePaul was already shaping (and increasing) its applicant pool through recruitment targeted to specific majors and to minority groups.

Even with all the changes, DePaul is still pretty easy to get into. Although the number of applications has doubled in the past seven years, the average ACT score for entering students-24-has remained about the same. About 70 percent of prospective undergraduates who apply are accepted. The graduate schools, while generally more prestigious than the undergraduate college, are still easier to get into than their Northwestern and University of Chicago counterparts. Nonetheless, some graduate departments compete nationally. The law school’s health program is ranked number ten and intellectual property 11th, according to U.S. News & World Report. The part-time business school program just moved up to eighth in the nation, by the same reckoning.

Top that off with lots of new facilities and high-end amenities (like free cable TV in the dorm rooms) and you’ve got an easy winner. DePaul’s upgraded campus is red-brick pretty, the way a college is supposed to look. The grassy quad is inviting. There are surprisingly few closed gates, guards, or buildings where one has to show an ID to get in. Being located in Lincoln Park doesn’t hurt, either. The area is attractive, generally safe, and full of nightlife opportunities (even for the under-21 set). School officials admit that the prospect of going to school in the city, and particularly in Lincoln Park, has become one of the school’s main draws.

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