Do you like the University of Chicago? Circle “yes” or “no” or Selectivity

Selectivity.  Selectivity has become the default measure of a college or universiity’s desirability.  Folk wisdom seems to have an unshakable faith in the invisible hands of market forces.  That is, the majority of college applicants have been trained to believe that the best schools will attract the most applicants and so will enjoy a greater degree of selectivity in admissions.  Selectivity at the University of Chicago has reached an all time high with just 15.8 percent of applicants offered a place in the undergraduate class of 2015, down three points from 2010’s incoming class and nearly half of the acceptance rater of just four years previous. Obviously, this increase in selectivity is not the result of a decision by UChicago to decrease class sizes, but results from increases in the number of students applying.  In the last admission cycle the College received 21,774 applications, a 12 percent increase from 2010. Over the last two years, the College has seen a 54 percent increase in applicants, the largest spike in the country.  So, does folk wisdom hold–is it the case that University of Chicago has become twice as capable as an institution of education in the past four years?

Obviously, the answer is a resounding “No.”  Perhaps the most that could be inferred from the movement of the “invisible hands” of market supply, demand, and scarcity (selectivity) is that the U of C has become better known in the past four years–causing more students to apply to an already outstanding institution.  However, I am incredulous that in the past four years the University has managed to communicate the excellence of its programs twice as effectively as in all previous marketing blitzes.  I would argue that the University’s new found glut of applicants has far more likely due to its move to accept the “common application.”

The admissions rate for the University of Chicago class of 2013, the first to use the Common Application, reached a, then, record low of 26.8 percent, down one percentage point from 2008 and 13 points down from admissions rates four years before the “uncommon application” was sent packing.  As 2009’s dramatic thirteen point drop demonstrates, it is the new ease of application afforded by the common application that has allowed University of Chicago–and fellow common application schools–to dramatically increase their selectivity by casting a wider net and hauling in about the same number of fresh students into each incoming class.

Selectivity, then, is not the mark of academic superiority, but the mark of institutional popularity.  Put crassly, if University of Chicago is able to continue this trend, the school will likely join the ranks of the Ivies with selectivity hovering around seven percent–and perhaps be voted home-coming queen. But, that would seem to assume that more applicants have applied because the University of Chicago had won a place on their short-listed schools, not merely because applying simply meant clicking another check-box and authorizing another credit card payment.

Even granting that University of Chicago is becoming a better known and more desirable option for more applicants, what does UChicago’s meteoric rise in popularity mean for her future grads?  I tend toward the opinion that winning more applicants and attaining a higher selectivity index does help to move the University up in the estimation of other schools and, perhaps, its graduates in the estimation of employers–but the process is incredibly slow and unlikely to help anyone currently braving the gauntlet of undergraduate or graduate admissions.

The mythology of the Ivy schools is deeply inbedded in American culture and the history of the University of Chicago is a testament to the need the Second City felt to compete with both the Northeast elite and Oxbridge.  In 1981 Martin Ryserson and Charles L. Hutchinson worked with Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb in order to plan the Univeristy’s seven main quadrangles complete with buildings of the English Gothic revival style and a couple of straight-up copies of Oxford’s memorable spires.  This second coming of the University of Chicago saw ground broken for its first building on November of 1891 with the university opening without ceremony on October 1, 1892. The University’s first President Dr. Harper wrote to the university’s primary benefactor, John D. Rockefeller, suggesting that “…the work of the university begin on October 1st as if it were the continuation of a work which had been conducted for a thousand years,” adding that “…personally I am opposed to display and ceremony.”  The “Grey City” of the University had actually been bankrolled in order to correspond with the opening of “The White City”–the World’s Columbian Exposition which did open with great fanfare on May 1, 1893.

This history lesson comes in support of the claim that U of C has always had a chip on its shoulder.  When confronting the need for  suitably academic architectural style, the university bypassed the collegiate brick and slate favored by Yale, Harvard, and the majority of the Ivies and built a series of medieval walled colleges in the ancient style of Oxford–just in time to look the part of a “world-class” institution for the Exposition.  Dr. Harper’s appeal that construction should appear to be the work of “a thousand years” was in no way accidental.  University of Chicago was always conceived of as subscribing to an academic tradition older than the Ives and just as–if not more–worthy of acclaim.

However, with that fact in mind, current students should not expect that something as simple as a move to the common application and a higher selectivity index is going to accomplish what the University’s ancient architecture, seventy-three nobel prize winners, and inferiority complex fueled mania have failed to do–win a place at the Ivy’s lunch table.  Further, even if greater selectivity is indicative of greater academic esteem and the U of C’s level of selectivity can approach that of the Ivies, the “mind share” that the Ivies hold will only allow the popular imagination to include U Chicago on the list of almost Ivies which–while being just as selective–are somehow less prestigious.

The University of Chicago’s new-found fascination with selectivity is indicative what makes it great, but not in the way that it thinks.  The Second City’s need to prove itself pushes so many to do so much more than they believed they were capable making the University one of–if not the best–American schools.  However, the urgent need for greater selectivity in incoming classes produced by numerical sleight of hand is only emblematic of that inferiority and does nothing to contribute to the advances that it precipitates.


One comment on “Do you like the University of Chicago? Circle “yes” or “no” or Selectivity

  1. JC says:

    Honey, it’s not 1915 any more and you are indeed right that UChicago has the fastest dropping admit rate in the country. I’m afraid that does mean prestige, and just as Stanford blew past most of the Ivy League, UChicago is about to do the same. It’s acceptance rate this year will 13% at most and shows no signs up letting up. While Harvard’s apps were down 2% this year, Uhicago was up 16%. Because of the internet and Facebook and College Confidential, UChicago will rise much faster than the decades it used to take.

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