Back to school

By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07

Photography by Dan Dry


Attendance is up at this year’s Chicago Booth information sessions.

“What’s your biggest concern about Chicago Booth?” Cassandra Davis, a first-year MBA student, asked prospective students at a February information session. Ten well-dressed 20-somethings sat around a boardroom table, pens poised atop folders and notebooks. A man in a brown sweater and collared button-down raised his hand: “Getting in?”

His answer wasn’t entirely a joke. The business school—and the U of C in general—has always been highly competitive, but this year Chicago Booth’s admissions committee has noticed even more interest than usual.

Conventional wisdom says that when the economy goes south, graduate-school applications increase. People who might have trouble finding a job seek refuge in higher education. “We have definitely experienced an increase in visitors over the past few months,” says Chicago Booth Assistant Director of Admissions Carrie Lydon.

Rose Martinelli, associate dean for student recruitment and admissions, reports an increase in the school’s second-round applications, which were due January 7. Part of the increase, Martinelli says, came from people who’d been “displaced by the economic downturn,” and appeared to have “thrown [applications] together at the 11th hour.”

Because the Graduate Management Admissions Test is offered every month, Chicago Booth hopefuls could apply shortly before the deadline. For other divisions and professional schools, prospective students must plan further ahead. The general Law School Admission Test, for example, is given only four times annually. It’s hard to say, says Ann Perry, the Law School’s assistant dean for admissions, whether this year’s 6 percent rise in applications was a result of the recession. The “full realization” of the economic crisis hadn’t quite manifested by the February deadline, and Perry predicts 2010 applications will see a more significant rise.

Some advanced-degree programs have seen no uptick at all—yet. Pritzker School of Medicine Associate Dean of Admissions Herbert Abelson reports no increase, which is consistent with the U.S. average for medical schools. “The pipeline is long,” says Abelson. With course prerequisites and clinical-training requirements, it could “take a few years” before the admissions committee sees a change.

The number of doctoral applicants also has stayed consistent. “The PhD market is driven by subject matter,” says Divinity School Dean of Students Teresa Owens. “You don’t see those short-term fluctuations.”

That’s not to say the economic crisis hasn’t affected doctoral programs. To ensure that it has enough money to support incoming students, the Divinity School already has cut one PhD slot to give next year’s cohort a larger stipend. The Social Sciences Division has a similar plan: “We’re husbanding our resources,” says Patrick Hall, the division’s dean of students. “We generally don’t admit students in doctoral programs without substantial fellowship support, so we’re reducing the size of entering PhD cohorts.” And incoming Humanities Division PhD classes, noted Dean Martha Roth in an early March letter, will decrease by 25–33 percent.

For programs that don’t offer full tuition or fellowships, costs are often a primary concern. At the Div School, says Owens, one-third of the students are in the master’s program, which costs $11,832 per quarter for the 2008–09 academic year. “Availability of student loans in a big concern,” Owens says. Perry, at the Law School, agrees. She hasn’t heard anything yet about students having difficulty acquiring loans, but she took heed after the University dropped its lending partner, the Illinois Designated Account Purchase Program, last June when the lender was unable to renew its credit line. “Those kinds of changes are unnerving to students who may have bad credit or have never taken out loans before,” she says. “It’s an uncertain time.”

At Chicago Booth, says Martinelli, securing loans is especially difficult for international students. In October “loan programs for international students without a cosigner at most top-tier programs ended abruptly,” she wrote on the business school’s admissions blog, “due to the credit-market crisis that is happening worldwide.” This year she has seen a “bit of a slide for international applications,” but she remains optimistic that international students will have an available loan program before fall.

Once prospective students work out how to finance their degrees, says Martinelli, “it’s a fabulous time to be a student.” In addition to developing critical-thinking skills and broadening their perspectives, students also expand their networks to include faculty, classmates, alumni—people to help them after school. “You are making a long-term investment in human capital,” she says, “which is the most under-recognized investment you can make. And there will be great return.”

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