The University of Chicago Magazine

October-December 1996


the University has consistently put ideas squarely at the center of the educational experience. Student and alumni views of this priority on ideas come through in both surveys and anecdotal accounts: "They are enormously proud of their Chicago education."

When objective criteria such as SAT scores and high-school records are considered, the College's current students are near the mean of students at the nation's top ten research universities. Moreover, in terms of such subjective factors as seriousness of purpose and intellectual curiosity, studies conducted with peer institutions show that Chicago's undergraduates rank at the very top.

At the same time, however, the College receives fewer applicants than peer institutions. In 1995, for example, 4,400 high-school students applied for the 1,000 first-year places at Chicago, compared to 14,700 applicants for 1,600 places at Stanford. The encouraging news is that 1996 saw a 23 percent increase in the number of College applicants--to an all-time record of 5,412. But the fact remains, as Provost Geoffrey Stone, JD'71, noted in a September memorandum to the University community, that "too many of the nation's best high school students do not apply to Chicago, and too many of those who do apply and are accepted choose to attend other, often (by any measure) less excellent institutions."

Both to continue Chicago's tradition of the ideal liberal-arts education and to do an even better job of convincing the nation's best and most serious students to partake of that education, Sonnenschein argues that it is appropriate to give greater priority to collegiate education.

Such an emphasis, he believes, involves the continuation of many Chicago traditions, including regular evaluation of the University's curricula. The College faculty is currently reviewing the Common Core, while each department has undertaken a review of its own College program, determining the efficacy of its undergraduate concentration in preparing students for both scholarly and non-academic careers.

This latter point takes on special importance. Although the University has a well-deserved reputation as a "teacher of teachers," nine of ten of College alumni have jobs outside of a college or university setting. Recognizing this reality, the University's Office of Career and Placement Services, which provides job and career counseling for both undergraduate and graduate students, has worked over the past year to improve its offerings, including more opportunities for students to connect with and learn from alumni.

While College students and alumni give the U of C exceptionally high marks on its educational offerings, they are less positive in their ratings of the quality of the College's extracurricular life (see "Chicago Journal," August/96)--concerns that are also among those most often voiced by students who decide not to apply or not to attend Chicago.

Sonnenschein stressed that allowing students time for personal and intellectual growth outside the classroom need not diminish the rigor of the College's academic experience. Rather, the richness of course work should be mirrored by a similarly well-constructed cocurriculum. Thus the University must consider ways to improve the quality of student life, from athletic facilities to residence halls that function better as communities of learning. Already, a number of recommendations made by the campuswide Task Force on the Quality of Student Experience in its report last spring are being implemented.

Each of these initiatives, notes Provost Stone, is fueled by a recognition that "although our students come to Chicago first and foremost in pursuit of academics, they also seek a broad range of social diversions, including community service, theater, music, art, and athletics. These activities may not be at the very core of our mission, but they are important to the University community because they play a meaningful role in enriching the lives of our students."

Among the initiatives aimed at enhancing quality of life:

* Because 69 percent of College students volunteer for various local, national, and international causes, a student-run University Community Service Center, which coordinates and supports student public-service activities across campus, has received University funding and staffing.

* The second stage of renovations to the Reynolds Club will be completed by the winter quarter. In addition to a completely remodeled C-Shop, the project will provide expanded space for student organizations.

* To make the resources of the city--from the symphony and museums to sports and the blues--more readily accessible to students (as well as staff and faculty), this fall the University introduced an express bus service between campus and downtown.

Another important step in making the College more frequently the school of choice, Sonnenschein believes, is to do a better job of communicating what the University of Chicago has to offer: "I am concerned that while the University receives the same attention for faculty scholarship as the handful of most outstanding research universities, we are much less familiar to large numbers of prospective students or to the broader public. This must change." U of C alumni can play an active role in getting the word out, he emphasizes, simply by talking to prospective students about the value the University has given their own lives. "We will know that we've succeeded," Sonnenschein says, "when our alumni tell like-minded, serious students, 'You simply must come to Chicago.'"

And if more of the best students heed the call? A larger College enrollment could be in the picture, and several planning groups have been convened to examine what an increase in the undergraduate population might mean to the University in terms of academic and extracurricular needs and facilities. In discussions with the faculty, trustees, and other members of the University community, Sonnenschein has proposed that, when the numbers of highly qualified applicants rise, the College could expand from its current 3,550 undergraduates to 4,500 within ten years.

An additional 1,000 students would return the undergraduate population to its 1930s size and bring it closer in line with undergraduate populations at peer institutions. A larger College would help to provide the University with needed operating support, and--combined with improved student services and quality of life--it would also give the University as a whole a greater sense of community and pride. Most of all, Sonnenschein believes that "the University has the capacity and responsibility to offer the most outstanding collegiate education and to see to it that a larger number of the most academically talented and serious students make the College their first choice."

Interview with the President: Hugo Sonnenschein on how the University's plan will involve Chicago alumni

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