Getting In


The facts about college admission.


The Great "Success" of the University of Chicago

Jeff Levy - Saturday, October 19, 2013

As its freshman acceptance rate plummets into the single digits, the University of Chicago's meteoric rise in the college rankings says a lot about the business of college admissions.

As recently as 2005, UChicago had a freshman acceptance rate of forty percent. Why so high? Because 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.

But then something terrible happened. UChicago decided it didn't like what it saw in the mirror, that being 15th in 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 marketing firm Royall & Company

  2010                                             18.4%

  2011                                             15.8%

  2012                                             13.3%

  2013                                               8.8%

UChicago now stands alongside the 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 #5 with Stanford. It's the first college in fifteen years to successfully infiltrate the top ten colleges that never change position.

Why is this terrible? 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 this new homogenized 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. I 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 math than arithmetic.