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October 11, 2012

Promotional considerations

New applicants may be playing the name game, but popularity won’t necessarily hurt the U of C.

I heard of the University of Chicago before it went mainstream.

Okay, not really. Yet, judging by the annoyed comments you’ll hear from alumni and students every time admissions numbers or new U.S. News rankings come out, you’d think that the University of Chicago was some kind of underground indie band that totally sold out some time in the last five years. Since my college experience has fewer Core requirements and more places named after Arley D. Cathey than those of previous classes, I guess I am missing out on the One True Experience of the U of C. Sometimes I feel a little bit like Pip in Great Expectations, striving to disprove accusations of being nothing but common.

The prevailing narrative seems to be that, whereas students used to be drawn to the University because they were refreshingly unique individuals, they are now drawn by its name recognition. I cringe when students admit that University of Chicago didn’t become a viable option for them until it cracked the top five in the U.S. News rankings. Our inner hipster tells us to condemn applicants whom we perceive to be jumping onto a bandwagon. However, as much as I think that the rankings’ influence on colleges and applicants is excessive, I can’t really fault people for choosing to apply to schools that have become popular.

The marketing resources of universities like ours far exceed the research resources of the typical applicant. As a result, although applicants are told to find schools that are a good “fit,” the number of schools that seem to meet that criterion at the time of application is bound to exceed the number of schools to which one can reasonably apply, in most cases. Schools are interested in accepting students whom they believe to be a good match, but that does not mean they will try very hard to dissuade others from applying.

When I was in high school, the promotional materials I received from colleges followed a similar pattern: Photographs of the most impressive campus buildings, a “serious” shot of students studying, another shot of students having fun, a few pictures showing off the surrounding area, a page about sports, a page about available majors, and a page about how surprisingly affordable the university is despite the $50,000 per year sticker price. Unless you truly despise pretty buildings or the idea of people having fun, the only dealbreaker you’d hear from the university itself might be that it did not offer your desired major or varsity sport. Sure, colleges try to position themselves as unique in their promotional materials, but not always as a way of filtering the applicant pool. For example, the U of C (understandably) touts its large number of Nobel laureates. However, this detail is more of a fun fact to pull out when you’re bragging about your school to your friends than something that plays a central role in the average undergraduate experience.

There are always a lot of questions we want answered about the universities we’re interested in, but some of those questions will never receive a fully honest response from someone whose job is to pitch the college to us. Outside of the resources supplied by the universities themselves, my main sources of information about college were former classmates, family, and teachers. Many of those people had attended medium-sized private research universities around Chicago or in the Northeast. Though it didn’t occur to me at the time, it is probably no coincidence that the majority of the schools I applied to also fell on that spectrum. However, I was still fortunate to know people familiar with schools that piqued my interest. Others’ main source of information may be the media and pop culture, which often pay a disproportionate amount of attention to a relatively small set of schools.  Even popular college guidebooks (e.g., Fiske’s or Princeton Review), which try to give balanced coverage to a variety of schools, feature hundreds of institutions. Pages containing familiar names will probably be the ones that catch the reader’s eye anyway.

If someone applied to this school simply based on name recognition and found the school to be completely wrong for her, then it’s clear popularity played too large a role in her decision. But if someone decided to take a closer look at this university after hearing it mentioned a few times and wound up liking what she saw, I would not be so churlish as to complain that she made a good choice in the ‘wrong’ manner. Though college admissions shouldn’t be a popularity contest, I doubt that we have the perspective to ascertain at this time whether the changes we see are in fact bad for this university.

The real test of whether the University of Chicago’s identity has remained intact ought to come years from now, when we see what kind of commitment future alumni have to thinking and learning long after graduation. After all, what people take away from the University is more important than why they come here. And maybe being mainstream won’t be such a bad thing—that is, if we eventually convince everyone else that they too should be building “That Kid” action figures in their spare time.   Jane Huang is a third-year in the College.

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