Chicago Students Rally to Be Uncommon

Petitions and planned protests object to an admissions change that might attract applicants and a higher U.S. News ranking.
December 1, 2006

At many colleges, students worry about the impact of rankings on the prestige associated with their degree. At the University of Chicago, hundreds of students have joined a protest movement in recent weeks, worried that the university is "selling its soul" to get a higher ranking from U.S. News & World Report.

What is Chicago doing? It is preparing to start using the Common Application, a single application through which students can apply to multiple colleges at once. Many colleges, including highly competitive institutions, have experienced a surge in applications after starting to accept the Common Application. The theory goes that students who are filling out applications as the deadline approaches will not hesitate to check another box or three, to give themselves a shot at attending institutions for which they otherwise might not bother filling out a full application.

For many Chicago students, going after such applicants seems degrading to their values -- even though Chicago applicants would still have to complete the university's own application essay. If students are going to attend a rigorous institution, the students say, they should be able to handle a rigorous application. "If you are smart and don't want to work hard, then go to Harvard, or better yet, go to Brown," said Roger Fierro, a senior who is chair of the Prospective Students Advisory Committee. "We think our application is unique and we want to defend it."

Part of the students' anger is that Chicago has until now not only taken pride in its application, but presented it as the antithesis of the Common Application. The Chicago application is called the Uncommon Application. And Theodore A. O'Neill, dean of admissions at Chicago, has been highly critical of the move toward conformity in college admissions. At last year's meeting of the College Board, O'Neill devoted much of a talk to mocking the Common Application, saying that it was part of what encouraged students to write "utterly boring" application essays, and calling on colleges to reject its use.

O'Neill said in an interview Thursday that the decision was not forced on him, although many at Chicago assume that it was. The shift at Chicago follows the arrival of a new president, Robert J. Zimmer, who in several interviews upon arriving spoke of the need to attract more applicants. O'Neill is highly outspoken and highly respected by admissions officers nationally. After his talk at the College Board last year, several in the audience said that they wished they could get away with being as frank and idealistic as he is. So the change in policy worries some admissions observers.

If Chicago doesn't listen to its students and to what O'Neill previously said, "that would be very troubling," said Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, a group devoted to making the college admissions process more rooted in educational values. Thacker said he saw the quest for more applications as a part of a disturbing trend of colleges trying to identify more potential students to reject, so that a college "appears to be more selective than it is," and goes up in the rankings.

Thacker said that many college embrace this "ranksters' approach," but that it makes no sense educationally. If Chicago's application helped prospective students get a good feel for the college and its values -- and sent applicants who didn't share those values elsewhere -- it was doing just the right thing, Thacker said.

"Kids are either excited by the application for the right reasons or turned off for the right reasons," he said.

The Common Application can be useful for colleges that want the same kinds of applicants as many other colleges, Thacker said. But he said American higher education would be better off if more colleges weren't trying to be the same, and in fact tried to be unique and to find good matches, not more people to reject.

The best news in the controversy, Thacker said, was the idea that students are getting involved and defending the current application. And they are indeed getting involved. A protest is planned for today. T-shirts are being sold that say "We Are Uncommon." More than 1,000 students have joined a Facebook group opposed to the change (while 12 have joined a group favoring the change). As of Thursday evening, 1,001 students and alumni had signed an online petition opposing the adoption of the Common Application. In comments students added to their signatures, many of them said that they applied to Chicago because of its unique application and viewed the shift as encouraging laziness or conformity.

"I cannot express how much the Uncommon Application meant to me during the soul-destroying ordeal of the college application process. Please don't let our goddamn Ivy League penis envy force a move that would infinitely diminish the school in the eyes of current and future students," wrote one student.

Much of the opposition concerns a sense that the university isn't comfortable with its reputation as a haven for intellectuals, who thrive more on work than fun, and who are more likely to be future professors than future millionaires. In an editorial called "Who Wants to Go to UPenn, Anyway?," the student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, wrote that the students fighting the change feared that the university could become a "generic elite private university."

Luis Lara, a junior history major who helped organize the protest movement, said that he got angry as soon as he heard of the plan to abandon the Uncommon Application. "They are saying that they want to reach more people, and I think this would get a higher number of applicants, but just so we could go up in the rankings," he said. "If they are willing to do this one thing for the numbers and rankings, what else might they do?"

In fact, much of the most unique part of Chicago's application -- the essay -- will stay the same, and would have to be filled out by applicants in addition to the Common Application with its essay. The Chicago application currently features two short essays that tend to stay largely the same from year to year, and one longer essay in which students have a choice of prompts, which change from year to year. One of the short essays is about why a student wants to attend Chicago, and the other is about student favorites. Students are asked to write about favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, magazines or newspapers. Students are told to pick one category to explain their favorite, several or another favorite item for their essay.

O'Neill said that -- when the shift takes place, probably in the fall of 2008 -- one of the short essays would have to be dropped. He said it would probably be the "favorites" essay.

Chicago will keep its famous long essay. This year's choices were all nominated by current Chicago students and include a response to a Miles Davis quote, a request for a description of yourself on a point or series of points on a Cartesian coordinate system (possibly using a z axis in addition to x and y), or a definition of your "place having everything right," playing off the translation of a word used by the Kwakiutl tribe in British Columbia. (The Common Application essay choices, which applicants would also have to complete, are standard application fare about a significant experience, a person of influence, a national issue of importance, etc.) Some students say they fear that the same logic that is leading the college to shift to the Common Application will be used to adopt its essay in a few years.

In the interview Thursday, O'Neill spoke with characteristic passion about the current application, which is longer and more personalized in its explanations than the Common Application. Of Chicago's application, he said, "I like the look of it. I like the feel of it. I like the way we explain things. I like our essays." He also confirmed the comments made by so many students in the two weeks since plans for a change became known. He said that many students tell him every year that it was the application that sold them on the university.

But O'Neill also noted that he doesn't tend to hear from the students who never applied. "How many students get to December 30 and say that they can't do one more essay?" he asked. There have always been internal critics at the university, he said, who have told him, "Look -- you think this thing is so cool, but it scares kids off." He said he especially worried about scaring off applicants who may be the first in their families to go to college, although he acknowledged that Chicago of late has been doing well at diversifying its student body and attracting more applicants -- with its unique application.

Chicago has no shortage of applicants. In the most recent year, 9,500 applied; 3,600 were admitted, and 1,250 enrolled. But O'Neill said he agreed with the goal that there should be more applicants -- "I want many more smart kids to apply" -- but denied that rankings had anything to do with that desire, noting that he has been pushing for years to attract more applicants.

Asked about the students who are protesting the change, O'Neill said that "it's part of our culture to poke fun at ourselves and the world," and that students "cherish our differences." He added, of the students: "They love their college. They love that their college is different."


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