University of Chicago Sees Rise In Number of Underrepresented Students

U of C
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
U of C
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

University of Chicago Sees Rise In Number of Underrepresented Students

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Updated Thursday at 12:26 p.m.

The number of first-generation and low-income students who committed to attending the highly selective University of Chicago this fall increased 20% over the previous year, according to new data released by the university Wednesday.

University officials are crediting the increase in these students, who are traditionally underrepresented on the Hyde Park campus, with a program they introduced last year, the UChicago Empower Initiative. It increased financial aid opportunities for students and made standardized test scores optional in the application process.

According to the university, the percentage of first-generation students increased from 9% to 12% of the total incoming class. The percentage of incoming students receiving Pell Grants, federal dollars given to low-income students, increased from 11% to 14%. The university would not provide raw numbers.

“UChicago designed Empower based on our theory that more students of intellectual promise would seek higher education if we removed key barriers for applying to and attending college,” John W. Boyer, dean of the University of Chicago College, said in a press release. “We look forward to welcoming our incoming class of scholars in the fall, and providing additional resources for more students of diverse backgrounds and geographies to achieve their academic and career aspirations.”

The new financial aid program includes full-tuition scholarships for students whose families earn less than $125,000, a $20,000 scholarship for four years, as well as new scholarships for veterans and children of police officers and firefighters.

UChicago was the first highly selective, research school to become test-optional, joining hundreds of private liberal arts universities who are trying to diversify their student bodies and attract more low-income and first-generation college students.

Only 10% to 15% of students did not submit test scores with the application last year.

New focus on rural students

The Empower Initiative also targeted increasing the number of students from rural parts of the country. UChicago officials said they saw a 50% increase in incoming freshmen from rural areas from 30 students last fall to 48 students this fall.

Admissions officials say it’s important to understand the circumstances that rural students may face that could disadvantage them in the college application process.

“They may not have a college advisor, they may not have AP curriculum, they may not have the types of resources that other schools might,” said Marjorie Betley, senior associate director of admissions at UChicago.

She says rural students don’t get as many visits from college representatives or may not have family who attended college and can guide them through the process.

This year, the university introduced the UChicago Emerging Rural Leaders Program, which tries to expose high school students to the college experience over the summer and sends UChicago representatives out to high schools in rural areas.

Right now, rising high school seniors are at UChicago for a three-week session on navigating the college admissions process. Next month, 60 rising sophomores will come to campus for a week-long program that introduces students to college life. All of these programs are funded by a university trustee.

UChicago admissions officers partnered with a nonprofit, rootED Alliance, to visit rural high schools in Illinois, Missouri, and Tennessee

“For a lot of these schools, we were one of the first colleges and universities not within driving distance that had visited,” Betley said.

The rural leaders program also is adding free tuition, fees, room and meals for rural students from families who make under $60,000, and free tuition and fees for families who make under $125,000. UChicago also recently changed its policy so a family’s farm is not considered an asset for financial aid purposes, after an accepted student was denied financial aid because her family’s farm boosted the family’s assets.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how often students would receive scholarship money under the new financial aid program. The story has also been updated to include the correct spelling of Marjorie Betley’s last name and an updated number of rising sophomores coming to campus provided by the University of Chicago.