Generation X': A Brief History of Dropouts and Transfer Students at the University of Chicago

The University of Chicago has a distinguished list of alums. It also has a distinguished list of decampers.

By Hannah Edgar

Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive

GREY CITY

  /  

Oct. 28, 2016

When one receives a degree from the University of Chicago, they find themselves in esteemed company. Alums from the College have been game-changers in everything from music (Philip Glass, A.B. ’56) to journalism (Katharine Graham, A.B.’38) and politics (Bernie Sanders, A.B. ’64).

However, many of the alums the University trumpets as its own technically left without a degree. There’s Ernest Lawrence (X ’29), a key physicist for the Manhattan Project and after whom the Lawrence National Labs in Berkeley and Livermore are named; writer Saul Bellow (X ’39), who, despite returning to the University of Chicago as a professor with the Committee on Social Thought, transferred to Northwestern as an undergrad; John Scopes (X ’31) of Scopes Monkey Trial fame; actors Ed Asner and Mike Nichols (X ’48 and X ’53 respectively); film critic Roger Ebert (X ’70)—the list goes on.

In fact, the University of Chicago alum I admire the most never received a degree. Andrew Patner (X ’81), a Chicago-based journalist, radio host, and critic, was a dedicated writer for The Maroon, later becoming its editor-in-chief. While covering a 1979 protest against the University’s decision to give Vietnam War Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara a $50,000 peace prize, he was thrown in jail overnight alongside a handful of student protesters—an experience he wrote about for The Maroon. Less than two years later, he dropped out from the College to travel to Europe, inspired by Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and hoping to get involved with the Polish Solidarność movement.

Having grown up in Hyde Park, Patner never fully extricated himself from the University’s orbit. He briefly attended the Law School, though he left there without a degree, too. Later in life, he was a devoted member of the Humanities Visiting Committees, advocated for the expansion of the arts on campus, and proudly claimed the University of Chicago as his alma mater for the rest of his life—more so than the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he actually completed his undergraduate degree.

I was itching to ask Patner why, exactly, he left the College in the first place. Was he disillusioned after his arrest? Did he feel alienated by the University, as some of his editorials for The Maroon and Grey City seemed to imply? 

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to ask him—he died unexpectedly in February 3, 2015, while we were planning a meet-up in Hyde Park.

Patner’s decision to leave, I’d assumed, had been something of an anomaly—and, in some ways, it was. But as the University’s history came to the fore the following year for its 125th anniversary—and through my own research, while co-writing a piece on faculty-administration tensions for The Maroon—I was surprised to find that Patner was in good company: Throughout the greater part of the 20th century, the University produced far more dropouts than its peer institutions.

After all, the University had auspicious beginnings: within four years of its inception in 1892, Chicago’s enrollment exceeded Yale’s or Harvard’s. Had it continued to grow, it might have swelled to the size of a large, Midwestern private school, à la Northwestern and Notre Dame. As a former member of the Big Ten, the University would have had the football credentials to back it up, too.

As Dean of the College and historian John W. Boyer asserts in his book, The University of Chicago: A History, the College’s “profound crisis of enrollments” began after the University’s iconoclastic fifth president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, departed the University in 1951. Hutchins is credited with a number of institutional changes that became central to the University’s ethos, but which had earth-shattering effects on the long-term growth of the College. Adamant in his belief in the well-rounded student, Hutchins rejected grades, course requirements, and even majors during his tenure—tenets which became, to a lesser degree, the basis for the College’s rigorous Core Curriculum. In 1939, Hutchins infamously used the momentum of a recent losing streak to justify cutting Chicago’s varsity football team. Hutchins was tough on Greek life, too, restricting participation in fraternities to those with an undergraduate degree.[1]

These blows to conventional bedrocks of American collegiate life birthed the University’s reputation as an intensely intellectual and somewhat impractical place. As one can imagine, a degree in general education wasn’t very popular with employers; a survey of about a thousand students who had attended the College between 1931 and 1935 revealed that 78 percent of them felt that their education had not helped them select a job or profession. Understandably, parents couldn’t see the merit in sending their children to a school that didn’t prepare students in that critical juncture, and high school teachers were turned off by Hutchins’s controversial Early Admissions program, which gave the best high schoolers in the nation the option to leave school early to study at the University of Chicago. It was tacitly understood by parents, teachers, and prospective students that a University of Chicago degree existed mostly to prime students for further education at a graduate or professional school, earning the University a well-deserved reputation as the “teacher of teachers”[2] but scaring off untold applicants in the process.

Thus, while other universities experienced their most dramatic period of expansion in the postwar period, undergraduate degrees from the University of Chicago became professionally devalued, and enrollment plummeted along with it, beginning a decades-long period of stymied growth and high attrition. Fewer than 1,350 students were enrolled in the College in autumn 1953; a 1956 Board of Trustees report concluded that while the University’s graduate schools were performing better than the average in terms of enrollment, “undergraduate enrollment … for reasons peculiar to this institution, declined more than at sister institutions.” The report didn’t speculate as to what said reasons might be, but did go on, interestingly, to note that then-Chancellor Lawrence A. Kimpton was reviewing a proposal to grow the undergraduate population from 2,000 to 5,000 undergrads by the early ’60s—a surprisingly forward-thinking figure, given that enrollment wouldn't break the 5,000 mark until 2008.

Meanwhile, of the first-years who matriculated that year, in 1956, 51 percent would withdraw by spring 1960.

Kimpton inevitably fell short of what can only be called a quixotic goal, as evidenced by a memorandum sent to Kimpton on May 12, 1960. It analyzed the results of a survey given to students during spring quarter registration and found that, of the 1,969 returning undergraduates, 198 “[would] not” return in the fall, 352 “may” return, and 1,419 “firmly expect[ed]” to remain. Vice Chancellor John I. Kirkpatrick fretted that the findings indicate that the “drop-out rate seems to continue at [a] distressing rate,” especially if half of the “may-return” students ended up leaving.

After Kimpton resigned in 1961, the dropout crisis and the struggle to reverse it was inherited by his successors. A 1963 report by the Registrar reveals telling statistics from the Class of 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965 in terms of enrollment, degrees received, and attrition. The findings were alarming: as of January 1963, a whopping 45.5 percent of the Class of 1962 had gone “inactive,” meaning they were no longer enrolled and had received no degree. The amount of inactive students even outnumbered those who had graduated the previous spring (42.6 percent). Nor were things looking good for the other classes: the Class of 1963 was hovering at 37.3 percent inactive students just months before graduation. (When the study was revisited again in 1966, the trends were largely the same: the dropout rates within the Classes of ’62 and ’63 were, respectively, 44.9 percent and 38.9 percent[3])

Now that officials had put a system in place to track and predict the numbers of students dropping out, the logical next step was to determine exactly why students were leaving in droves. In 1963, an Assistant Dean of Students, James Newman, speculated about this in a confidential report to then-Chancellor George Beadle:

“The student in the College of the University of Chicago lives in a very special kind of social milieu. Its openness, its diversity, its large horizons, its lack of group pressures toward conformity present the student with a challenge to be himself, to be tolerant of others, and to live comfortably in a free and open world. Few adults would choose to live in a social milieu which offers as little emotional support to the individual as does the College.”

As it happens, the Class of 1963 would play a key role in the first and most comprehensive study of University of Chicago dropouts: “The Student and the College Community: A Study of Attrition and Persistence in a Highly Selective Liberal Arts College,” published in 1965 by Newman’s wife and fellow Assistant Dean of Students Mary Alice Newman.

Newman’s study approaches the dropout phenomenon from numerous demographic and academic angles. Some predictable takeaways are that those who were higher-achieving in high school and of typical college age (i.e. not early entrants) had correspondingly higher rates of persistence. Additionally, 89 percent of “persisters” already had experience living in an urban or suburban setting, and most came from well-educated, white-collar families.

On the other hand, the majority of dropouts reported a GPA below 2.0, and as many as 44 percent reported having been on academic probation at one time, as compared to 14 percent of persisters. Indeed, academic achievement was a major problem reported among future dropouts while they were still enrolled in the College, with some 22 percent reporting dissatisfaction in this area.

Other issues occupying undergrads pertained to the atmosphere of the College (12 percent) and external circumstances (14 percent). However, surprisingly, the second-largest subset of dropouts reported no dissatisfaction whatsoever (21 percent).

After graduation, Newman caught up with 52 recent graduates and 60 dropouts, comparing the most statistically significant results of her findings. Many findings corroborated her preliminary data: Dropouts tended to have less concrete academic goals and more erratic study habits than their persisting peers and were less oriented towards a liberal arts education. However, Newman also found that about 62 percent of dropouts needed “advice, structure, and support” as compared to 33 percent of persisters, and that only 7 percent of dropouts had a “mature level of emotional independence” with adults, on whom they tended to be excessively dependent or resistant to.

Though Newman’s report determined that somewhere between 13 and 20 percent of dropouts probably would have struggled in any academic environment, she concluded that about half of the dropouts seemed to struggle at the University of Chicago in particular, “their interaction with the Chicago environment itself aggravating their specific problems.” On this topic, as Newman noted, the similarities between dropouts and persisters prove significant. Eighty-three percent of dropouts described Chicago as “diffuse, impersonal, and unsupportive,” and more than half (52 percent) of persisters confirmed this perception. Additionally, 92 percent of dropouts and 77 percent of persisters found faculty “unavailable or disinterested.”

Here, Newman’s findings seemed to corroborate her husband’s report from two years prior: somehow, the University of Chicago had come to be perceived as distant from the students it was supposed to serve. “The University is ‘they’ not ‘we’; and through some unholy alchemy it projects impersonality, anonymity, and bureaucracy… although the individuals who do its work are not impersonal, anonymous, or bureaucratic,” she concluded.

Newman’s findings were a major turning point in the University’s enrollment crisis. However, though they hinted at a diagnosis, they offered no easy solution, and the University would continue to struggle with uneven gains in enrollment and attrition through the early ’80s .[4] After nearly two decades of steadily increasing enrollment, reports by the Committee on Student Enrollment under Presidents Edward Levi and John T. Wilson reported a precipitous drop of enrollment in the College by about 1,000 students between 1969 and 1974[5]—a period that was also plagued by high attrition and political unrest. In the early 1970s, as many as one in five students left by the end of their first year, with untold numbers of dropouts of other ages.[6] According to one source, the climate in the ’60s and ’70s was such that the University once referred to the graduating classes between 1964 and 1974 as the “lost classes.”

Like Newman, I reached out to departees from the College to hear directly from them about their experiences at the University of Chicago and see if the statistics and the University’s conceived reasons for the mass exodus matched up with students’ actual reasons, and if their perspectives had changed with the passage of time. Unlike Newman, I didn’t restrict myself to a particular class or classes, except in the most general terms: all the interviewees attended Chicago between the early ’60s and the early ’80s.

The experience of one X ’69 alumna—who preferred to remain anonymous—echoes many of Newman’s findings about the archetypal Chicago dropout some years before. She felt as though high school hadn’t thoroughly prepared her for the rigorous, independent thinking required by the College and was overwhelmed by the “hard edge” to life there.

“I didn’t feel like there was a lot of support for students,” she said. “I could have certainly benefitted from counseling, and I’m sure it was available, but there wasn’t much publicity of services for students. I just didn’t have the perception that the University as an entity was interested in anything except your intellectual life.”

In retrospect, the alum noted that some things might have been different had she not been going through a difficult time: her father died while she was in high school, and she admitted to falling in with “the wrong crowd” during her two years at the University.

“It was hard for me to separate my personal issues from the environment of the University,” she admitted. “If I hadn’t been depressed and lacking in confidence, I might have said, ‘Well, this University is unnecessarily hard-nosed about many things and lacks support for its students, so I’m going to find someplace else.’ I didn’t really do that.”

“In those days, I felt like I was on my own, pretty much,” agreed Gene Strohl (X ’60), a retired radio host and teacher who is now active in community theater around San Luis Obispo, CA. However, Strohl—who would have graduated with that much-beleaguered Class of 1963—wasn’t unhappy at the University, which he remembers as an “eye-opening” place. Originally from a “cloistered” all-white neighborhood on Chicago’s Near North Side, he spent his first year attending community theater and performances throughout the city. On campus, he stayed busy as well, starting a one-man newspaper to cover house council meetings and other goings-on in his residence hall, the New Dorm (later Woodward Court, which stood at the current location of the Booth School of Business).

But for a first-generation student who already felt academically underprepared by “mediocre” public schools, the stimulation from all sides could be overwhelming.

“I got in, but I wasn’t really ready for it. I discovered this whole new microcosm of people that I’d never imagined outside of literature, from dedicated beatniks to an aspiring Egyptologist to the son of a former Mississippi governor who was ready to come to blows when I refuted his [defense] of separate-but-equal laws. And I’d never met a black person until I went to U of C.”

The environment proved as distracting as it was eye-opening, and at the end of the year, Strohl was placed on academic probation—or, as he jokingly put it, “reverse-invited” from the College.

“I became so distracted by what I was discovering and by daily life in the University that I kind of forgot there were traditional academic expectations, like attending class,” he remembered. “The dean called me in and said, ‘You’re not serious about your education, so take some time, and maybe come back.’ But I wasn’t surprised, and I think I felt, intuitively, that I needed a break at that point, anyway.”

Strohl never re-enrolled at the University, though he eventually moved back to the neighborhood with his wife, a black actress he’d met at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some parts of the U.S. Upon their return to the Hyde Park–Woodlawn area, both briefly worked part-time for the University.

While reaching out to alums, I specifically checked in with a number of persisters in Strohl's class (no X ’63 alums are listed in the Alumni Directory) to discuss the dropout rate and the Newman report. Almost all, including Strohl, expressed surprise that so many students in their class had left—very few were able to name someone who had left the University before graduating, despite the data showing that nearly two out of five students did so.

“The people we knew who [took a leave of absence] came back and finished up—I’m just surprised if 40 percent never got a degree,” Joan Merlin Palmer (A.B. ’63) said.

Palmer met her husband, Pat, in the same class at Chicago; they got married the day after graduation. They have lived for the past few decades in Hyde Park, where she is an adjunct faculty member for the School of Social Service Administration and he a professor emeritus in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Both assumed that more dropouts returned later on than Newman’s report or the 1966 data could project, since it was common to take more than four years to graduate.

“People just did different things. We had more commuter students in those days, and some were people who had to work for a while,” she said.

Alum Sid Huttner (A.B. ’63, A.M. ’69) also has a long and multifaceted perspective of campus: as a student, he was a resident assistant in Thompson House—then in Pierce Tower—before returning to the same building later that decade to serve as resident head of Henderson House. He finds it difficult to speak to the supposedly over-studious environment at Chicago, which was still being avidly discussed when he left in 1980.

“It’s not that the things that happened at the more socially-active Ivies or party schools didn’t happen at Chicago—they certainly did—but they were a subcontext to what you were doing academically and intellectually, and not having a lot of attention paid to them in and of themselves,” he recalled.

“What would spontaneously ignite in the houses were conversations. You’d be drifting down the hall, and a couple of guys would be talking about something, and suddenly there’d be six or eight people piling on the topic. There was no sense of any dullness or any unhappiness or anything else. I mean, we had a dozen people in the hall fighting about Plato or some such thing. … As far as I can tell, [the perceived social blandness] seemed to be more of a translation issue than a specifiable need.”

Surely enough, the factors most mentioned by respondents had nothing to do with the College’s social milieu, but changing social currents across the nation. Students left the University to hit the road, joining the burgeoning Counterculture and Civil Rights movements. As one degree-receiving alum wrote in an e-mail, “I came from a conservative Catholic family and went around the campus with three inch heels, cashmere sweaters and a blond pony-tail at a time when most students were hippies with long black hair, sandals and protest signs.”

“Some people joined the Civil Rights movement in Chicago or the South. The stuff in Vietnam was just barely beginning, too. There was a lot going on that drew people away,” Palmer remembered.

If this factor is one that goes completely unacknowledged in Newman’s report, it’s probably because it was published at a time that had neither the hindsight nor foresight to comprehend the power of the movement on already-poor attrition rates—nor could it fathom the ways political activism would continue to sour the already-fraught relationship between students and the administration.

In 1962, 1966, 1967, and 1969, students organized sit-ins in the administration building—which would later be named Edward H. Levi Hall, after the Chancellor whose administration was the subject of the largest and most infamous of these in 1969. That year, hundreds of students occupied the administration building to protest the dismissal of associate sociology professor Marlene Dixon, a known leftist.

Former Student Government president Jeff Blum (X ’69) was among the 42 students expelled during the fallout from the sit-in. When Blum arrived on campus in 1964, he recalled being met by a vibrant activist community that was “off-the-wall” by 1969.

“The world went crazy from 1968 to ’69. It was an amazing, sharp-break kind of moment,” he said.

Even for nonpolitical students, the expulsions were traumatic. In the ensuing years, Blum spoke to many students who, regardless of whether they’d participated in the sit-ins, remembered the 1969 debacle as a “huge, shocking eye-opener.”

The anonymous X ’69 alumna, too, recognized the sit-in as a “watershed” moment, especially when her best friend—who had been part of the crowd civically sitting in on the administration steps—was expelled during the fallout.

“She was not a political firebrand at all, and she still got expelled,” she remembered. “As muddled as I was by my personal issues, I saw that this was also happening outside of me.”

The expulsions cost the University the trust of many of its students. Off campus, it incited a rash of bad publicity, which it spent years trying to live down. Edward Hasbrouck (X ’80), a student protester who was arrested alongside Andrew Patner at the McNamara protest of ’79, felt that the shadow cast from the 1969 sit-in compelled the University to handle that situation much differently, especially when the police got involved.

“The University really didn’t want a bunch of students to go to jail—it only further embarrassed them,” he recalled. “All indications were that the University put pressure on the city to drop the charges, and successfully so.”

Still, the young Hasbrouck was put off by the dissonance between the values the University supposedly upheld and the administration’s alienating political maneuvers.

“To me, as a political person, a community of scholars would imply something about participatory governance and self-governance. And yet, there wasn’t much of a role for students and faculty on the topic of university governance and how the University behaved. It made me feel like I was deluding myself by believing I was as much a part of the community as I was. It certainly made me feel alienated, which was a factor in leaving,” he said.

Nisan Chavkin (X ’81), executive director of the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Chicago, overlapped with Hasbrouck and Patner in the College. Though his departure was fueled less by disillusionment and more by his desire to study in Israel—he transferred to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after his second year—Chavkin observed that Newman’s so-called “unholy alchemy” was still very much at work.

“The attitude of the University was very much, ‘Oh! You applied to the College—how interesting.’ I think we were a very large afterthought,” he said.

He also recounted what must rank among the University’s most bizarre and foreboding welcome speeches, delivered by former Dean of the College Jonathan Zittell Smith. “It was the old WWII fighter pilot speech: ‘Look to your left, look to your right, count 10 in each direction, and at least one of you isn’t going to graduate.’”

Though dropout rates were no doubt higher than average at the University, what Newman’s study, reports from the period, and Smith’s speech all fail to acknowledge is that dropout rates were high across the board in higher-learning institutions in the ’60s and ’70s. Retrospective studies conducted in the early ’80s revealed that high dropout and transfer rates plagued many higher learning institutions during the past two decades, and a National Longitudinal Survey administered to the high school Class of 1972 revealed that nearly 60 percent of first-time entrants to a four-year college left the first school they attended before completing their degree.[7]

Though he was not writing specifically about the University of Chicago, higher education theorist and retention expert Vincent Tinto aptly described the College’s compounded troubles in “Dropping Out from College” (1985): “It is striking, though not surprising, that those institutions concerned with student welfare and with the quality of students’ social and intellectual development retain students and attract those students more likely to be retained.” Yet, on the whole, “continuous enrollment to degree completion in one’s first institution is simply not as common as we are wont to believe.”[8]

Tinto offers three practical reasons for these general trends, all of which were reaffirmed by Grey City interviewees. First, tuition was less expensive—even adjusted for inflation—meaning there was less financial pressure to stay in school. Second, for those who never resumed their education anywhere, a college degree was less of a professional necessity. Such was the case with Hasbrouck, who now works as a freedom-of-travel policy analyst, travel writer, and advocate, among other things.

“It’s never been a problem for me that I didn’t have a degree,” Hasbrouck said. “People usually ask me where, not if I went to college, because they assume someone doing the kinds of things I do has a college degree.”

Additionally, in a pre-digital age, there were fewer resources to make an educated decision about which college to attend. A number of the degree-less alums interviewed recall forming hazy impressions of the University of Chicago from old college catalogs and a handful of recruiting pamphlets.

“It was partially lack of information,” the anonymous X ’69 alumna admitted. “I knew the University was top-notch, but I wasn’t as aware of the other possibilities. I didn’t get any counseling about it at all, and my mom was clueless. I got recruiting brochures from some small colleges, but they didn’t interest me much. It looked like my choices were University of Illinois or U of C.”

Similarly, Blum felt he “didn’t really know that much about college” while applying.

“Honestly, in my day, I thought it would be extremely exotic to go to school in the Midwest and meet people who weren’t Eastern seaboard. I didn’t have a definite view about Chicago versus its competitors.”

A College-specific phenomenon sometimes mentioned in tandem with its enrollment woes was its supposedly “offbeat” social milieu. In many ways, the pervasive stereotype of students at the College as quirky and academically masochistic was also indirectly attributable to Hutchins, who insisted that only “self-selecting” students ought to apply to the College.

But, as Boyer points out in A History, this population couldn’t possibly reflect the majority of the undergraduate population. Why, after all, would students who so eagerly sought out the University enroll, then drop out in such large numbers?

The answer lay in the College’s unusually high admission rates for much of the 20th century, and even its recent past (Case in point: between 1978 to 1985, the College had an average admission rate of 81 percent). In 1997, Michael Behnke, the Vice President and Dean of College Enrollment, stated plainly that the majority of applicants probably weren’t the “self-selecting” few that avidly wanted to come to Chicago; rather, many likely applied as a backup to more selective institutions.[9] The fact that Chicago ranked last in application number and yield among its peer institutions during the same period lends credence to this assertion.

While that may be true for some, of the dropouts I spoke to, none reported a feeling of dissatisfaction with the social life at the University of Chicago, though all dropouts reported varying degrees of dissatisfaction with formal support systems and the administration. Like the University’s unofficial pedagogical motto, Chavkin believes that the perceived lack of social life may have had more basis in theory than practice.

“The ethos of the College was that you were supposed to be a socially malformed person—I was, for sure—but I don’t actually know whether we were or not,” he said.

Hasbrouck knew the social milieu might have been, by some accounts, atypical, but he remains adamant that it was one of the College’s greatest gifts.

“When people talk about the peculiarity of the College, it gets talked about in terms of a lack of social life, or a lot of weird people. [But for me], it was the first time I met smart and interesting people who were weird in the ways that I was weird, and who didn’t make fun of me or think that I was terribly weird. And that was all wonderful.”

Hasbrouck knew the social milieu might have been, by some accounts, atypical, but he remains adamant that it was one of the College’s greatest gifts. For example, the fact that traditional college rites like football games, homecoming dances, and frat parties were present, but not de rigueur was liberating.

“There was a lack of social monolithicness,” he said. “In a way, the social vacuum was a wonderful thing.”

When asked about the social climate, Palmer responded similarly. “Do students still stand around arguing about whether Thomas Aquinas’ proofs of the existence of God are meaningful? … Well, that was fun! It’s still fun! That kind of richness we knew we wouldn’t be finding other places.”

Today, the University seems to enjoy the best of both worlds: though it’s not above capitalizing on its “quirk” factor, it by and large provides the same amenities as any other university of its stature. During a recent visit to campus, the anonymous X ’69 alumna marveled at the recent additions of the Logan Center for the Arts and Ratner Athletic Center.

“I thought to myself, ‘Man, if I’d had a really nice swimming pool like that, it would’ve made a big difference!” she chuckled.

Chavkin, whose daughters both applied to the College and got in, has been at turns intrigued and charmed by the University’s transformation.

“I think they’re finally the ugly duckling that turned into a swan after all these years,” Chavkin said. “It’s like that scene in Shrek 2, when Donkey is transformed into a horse, and he says, ‘We’re sexy!’ The University of Chicago is like, ‘Hey, we’re sexy now!’”

Kimpton would have agreed. The stats are everything he wanted in 1960 and more: low admission rates, high yield, a record-breaking numbers of applicants (31,411 for the Class of 2020), and 99 percent first-year retention rate. Meanwhile, last year, the attrition rate hovered somewhere around 6 percent.[10]

Today, only 391 degree-less alums are listed in the University’s Alumni Directory—only a sliver of the thousands who have departed the College over the decades. The University has played a role, albeit a passive one, in facilitating discussion about its heavy-handedness in the 1960s: in 2007, it hosted an alumni-organized panel about the 1969 sit-in on campus, with Jeff Blum as an invited speaker. (However, the administration continues to rebuff efforts by former faculty and alumni of the period to establish an archive dedicated to student activism akin to UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement Archive.)

Yet, the College seems to have remained comparatively aloof to that massive demographic who chose to leave. As far as Hasbrouck is concerned, it’s a missed opportunity.

“What matters isn’t what people thought then, but what folks like me think 35 years after they left. I think that’s a real gap in the University’s self-assessment and own educational practice: that it doesn’t systematically, scientifically, and deliberately go back to [alumni] at various points in their lives, whether they graduated or didn’t, and ask them: ‘What was good?’” he said. “I never heard a word from the University for at least 20 years. How do you know what prepared you for life if they don’t ask you later?”

Reasons for the University’s indifference could range from the cynical (those without degrees obviously wouldn’t feel beholden to donating money to their alma mater) to the logistical (many dropouts remain difficult to track down). More likely, the indifference is mutual. Chavkin confessed that, on the whole, he has an “ambiguous” relationship with both of his alma maters.

“It’s not them, it’s me,” he quipped.

Another impediment might be a residual sense of shame on both sides: on the student’s part for leaving and on the University’s part for an embarrassing track record.

“I’m glad I went there, I’m glad I went there when I did, and I’m glad I left when I did,” Hasbrouck said. “Leaving without a degree shouldn’t be presumed to be good or bad, or something the University should judge itself for.”

I’m inclined to agree. In my hours of conversation with them, the “Generation X’ers” embodied the traits the University continues to celebrate—critical inquiry and a certain hyper-developed intellectual indefatigability. In the end, for so many, it was precisely those principles that coaxed them away from the Quadrangles.

Ironically, a Walt Whitman quote from Leaves of Grass adored by Hutchins—the man whose reforms arguably precipitated the dropout crisis—comes to mind: “Solitary, singing in the west, I strike up for a new world.” Hutchins once suggested that the highfalutin line replace Crescat scientia; vita excolatur as the University’s new motto. Decades later, during his tenure as editor-in-chief, Andrew Patner co-opted it for The Maroon, emblazoning the line on the cover page, just beneath the title of the paper.

Maybe the “lost” generations weren't so much “lost” as they were idealists. It seems to me that the University of Chicago has always tended to attract a lot of those.


[1] Hauck, Grace. “A Snapshot of UChicago Greek Life: Demographics, Growth, and Regulation,” Grey City. June 1, 2016.

[2] SPRC. Report of the Advisory Committee on Student Enrollment. March 20, 1974. 

[3] 1964: 36.9 percent; 1965: 37.6 percent; 1966: 35.7 percent

[4] The 13 percent freshman dropout rate in 1983-84 was to be seen as an improvement, given that the rate was as high as 20 percent in the early 1970s. (Source: The University of Chicago: A History)

[5] Special Collections Research Center. Committee on Student Enrollment reports. March 1974 and 1976–77. 

[6] Boyer, A History.

[7] Eckland, Bruce K. and Louise B. Henderson. “College Attainment Four Years After High School.” 

[8] Vincent Tinto. “Dropping Out and Other Forms of Withdrawal from College.” 1985.

[9] Boyer, A History.

[10] CollegeFactual.

Correction on Oct. 30, 2016, 4:01 p.m. CDT:

A previous version of this article used outdated admissions statistics. It has been updated to reflect the most recent statistics available.