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Michael Behnke: The U of C's vice president for enrollment engineers a fresh look for--and new approach to--College admissions

Michael Behnke joined the University as vice president and associate dean for enrollment in July 1997. With several decades of experience in college admissions—from 1985 on, as dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Behnke, a 1965 graduate of Amherst College, is leading the U of C’s effort to attract more of the nation’s best students.

Your mandate is to increase the size of the College while maintaining—or improving—the quality of its students. How will you meet that goal?

The focus of the past year has been on infrastructure. First, we expanded our use of direct mail: We contact more students by using more lists, lists that give us the names of high-ability youngsters earlier in their high-school careers. Most high-ability students have their own lists pretty much settled by the end of junior year. Yet colleges’ direct-mail campaigns often are focused at the end of the junior year. That was true of Chicago as well. It’s too late.

We now mail to large numbers of students at the end of the sophomore year, so we can communicate with them regularly during the junior year. When they make up their lists, they’re aware of us. The strategy appears to be paying off. Our inquiries for 1999 are way up—approximately 28 percent higher than for this year.

Once you’ve received more inquiries, what do you do with them?

That brings up our second infrastructure focus: information systems. The admissions system was poor and the financial-aid system was disastrous. This year, we bought new systems. Already, they’ve made an enormous difference. When it was time to send out aid decisions, we could send them out on time to everyone, which had never happened before. It’s made a difference to upperclassmen, too. The dollar amount of federal loans reflected on students’ bills is up by more than 100 percent—the office processed more than $1.2 million in loans this year; compared to about $550,000 last year.

Our third focus was building a research component. With our new system, we can see which applicants are really interested, so we don’t focus time and resources on unrealistic inquiries. For example, we can grade applicants depending on how much contact they initiate: Do they respond to mailings? Do they visit campus? Those people get more points than those who are on our list simply because we bought their names. And they get more attention.

The new system lets us track inquiries to see what influences students’ decisions. It allows us to test mailing strategies and publications. Everything we do should be tested and refined. What we’re doing now is a three- to five-year campaign. It will change a bit, but what we learn will greatly affect the next campaign.

What about the most visible aspect of the changes you’ve made in the past year—changes in the publications sent to students?

As a college, we have an advantage in that we have a distinct identity, and we’ve tried to make ourselves look different, too. We hope that when students get our mailings, they’ll wonder why we sent something so different, and they’ll open it. For students with whom we’re a good match, we hope they’ll be intrigued and want to read everything.

When sophomores reply positively, they get a postcard—with a picture and a message about the University—every five or six weeks throughout their junior year. At the year’s end, we send another mailing. If they request information, they get a brochure called “When I was in high school....” It’s designed to talk to students who don’t feel entirely at home in a prom-dominated, athletics-dominated high school. We stress an intriguing look, to underscore that this is a special place, where we emphasize the life of the mind, where students work hard.

Having gotten students’ attention, we need to reassure them. We fight against the image—which alumni reinforce—that you can’t have a social life here; the academic demands are overwhelming; and there’s not much of a sense of community. Those are things we have to battle.

One way we’re doing that is by expanding our information sessions on campus, to get more people to come to campus. This fall, we’ve planned a series of day-long programs—on September 19, on Columbus Day, and on Veterans Day.

Another way that we distinguish ourselves is through our application form. Most of our peers use the Common Application, but we have our own. We push our essay questions; we really pay attention to what people write. So we decided to emphasize the difference and call it the UnCommon Application.

It’s a two-part application. The first part is biographical data—the numbers, what you’re interested in majoring in. Students can do that part online, and it goes directly into our database. In fact, students can find the whole application on the Web. They can fill it out, print it, and send it to us.

Can applicants submit their entire file via the Web?

Eventually, we’d like students to be able to go through the entire process on the Web. In the meantime, we want to make sure our pages are attractive and fast, with interesting links. We have a Webmaster and several HTMLers working with him. They’re constantly improving our site, and keeping track of what other schools are doing. Our goal is to look as good as we can. But paper’s not going to go away.

With more applicants, does the Admissions Office need more room than Harper Memorial offers?

We definitely need more space, not only for visitors, but also for admissions operations. To get it, we may have to move, but it’s important to remain on the quads: To have the Admissions Office in a place that’s lively is a real advantage. The long-term solution depends upon the campus master plan. Meanwhile, we’re looking at ways to use the space we have more efficiently, to make it more welcoming.

Why does Chicago attract fewer “legacies,” children of alumni, than many of the schools with which we compare ourselves?

Legacies make up fewer than 5 percent of the College. It would be great to have more. At the same time, we don’t try to be all things to all people. The children of our grads aren’t necessarily going to reflect their parents’ interests or motivations and thus won’t be a match. Also, we have many alums who had a love-hate relationship with the institution, and aren’t sure they want their children to go through what they went through, even though they value it.

A family connection reinforces a stronger sense of identity with the institution. Alumni children come from households where books were read and ideas discussed: They’re our kind of people. As a way of encouraging them, we waive the application fee for children of alumni.

Is part of the push for more undergraduates to increase the number who can pay their own way?

There are relatively few students in the United States with the academic ability we’re looking for and the ability to pay for a place like this. We’re in incredibly heavy competition for such students, which is why financial aid is so crucial; the majority of our students are on financial aid.

By emphasizing the life of the mind, the old saying goes, we teach people not to value the money they won’t make. Quite frankly, very well-off families don’t always live in an atmosphere that reinforces the desire to work as hard as students must do here. When I was at MIT, I visited a secondary school where the student body was quite wealthy, and the guidance counselor said, “None of our students want to work that hard; we have a lot of parents who went to MIT, but they’ve made it—their kids don’t have to make it again—they don’t have to go through MIT.”

And while we’re highly respected in academic circles, we don’t have the overall reputation that some other institutions do. There’s been a significant shift of high-income families from the private to the public colleges—many states give enormous incentives to keep their brightest students at home, in the public sector.

Another thing we fight against is the fact that the Midwest is not a great draw. If you look at the ratio of students who leave a state to attend college or university versus the number a state draws in, the only state that does worse than Illinois is New Jersey. Huge numbers of children from affluent families around Chicago go to the coasts for college. And we don’t attract as many students from other parts of the country. One problem is that the growth areas—like Florida, Arizona, and New Mexico—are full of Midwesterners who fled the weather and vowed they won’t return.

What can alumni do to encourage students to apply?

I’d like alumni to recognize that while we taught them critical thinking, they don’t have to apply it every time they talk about Chicago to prospectives. If they can arrest their critical impulse and be a bit more enthusiastic, that would be wonderful. We know from surveys that our alumni are much more likely than alumni from other schools to feel their education taught them how to think, to develop their intellectual skills. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, that is increasingly important.

Also, alumni can help people understand the changes that have taken place here in Chicago. A lot of our alumni with children, or who know college-age students, were here when this was a much more dangerous neighborhood and Chicago was not the world-class tourist destination it is now.

It’s true, and alumni were right to complain, that there were significant lapses in attention to the needs of undergraduates outside the classroom. This is a culture that emphasizes intellectual life and is somewhat proud of not having a lot of the amenities other places have. But our surveys show that alums felt they were not well served by career guidance and placement, they didn’t develop socially as much as they would have liked, they didn’t have enough opportunities to participate. We’ve made significant improvements.

Life is so much more enriched for students today than it was five, ten years ago. Alums should realize that the intellectual quality is still as strong, but the extracurriculars are much better. This is such a special place, and we need alums to get the word to others.

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