The U of C's vice president for enrollment engineers a fresh look
for--and new approach to--College admissions
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.
mandate is to increase the size of the College while maintaining—or
improving—the quality of its students. How will you meet that goal?
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.
you’ve received more inquiries, what do you do with them?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
applicants submit their entire file via the Web?
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.
more applicants, does the Admissions Office need more room than
Harper Memorial offers?
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.
does Chicago attract fewer “legacies,” children of alumni, than
many of the schools with which we compare ourselves?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.