Columbia College Chicago: Dismantling the Admissions Myth

By Ann C. Logue
Illustrated by Abigail Friedman

The Myth of Selectivity

No doubt about it: getting into an Ivy League school is extremely difficult. But how common is such super-selectivity? What about the other thousands of colleges and universities in the country? The mythology surrounding the college admissions process has become so pervasive that many imagine the angst of Ivy League admissions to be the norm. Teenagers see it played out in “Gossip Girl” and the like, where the role that college applications play in the lives of fictional, rich, prep-school students in New York intensifies the suspenseful narrative. After all, there would be no drama if Serena van der Woodsen dreamed of attending the City University of New York, the first college in the United States to accept all applicants as a matter of policy.


The reality is far different. There are about 3,600 colleges and universities in the United States. Of these, about 1,600 are two-year colleges, virtually all of which are “open admissions,” meaning they will admit nearly anyone with a high school diploma. That leaves about 2,000 four-year colleges, several hundred of which are also open admissions. A few hundred more accept more than 95 percent of applicants.

Harvard, by contrast, accepted only 7.1 percent of applicants last year. But that level of exclusivity is unusual, even among “elite” institutions. Northwestern University, which draws students with similar academic credentials, accepted 25.3 percent of applicants for the class of 2012. Surprised that it’s that high? Believe it or not, only about 135 colleges in this country admit less than 50 percent of applicants, according to College Masters, a consulting firm in the business of helping high school students get into the college of their choice. That means that about 1,865 four-year colleges—93 percent—admit more than half of those who apply. But people in the business of getting kids into college, and colleges with recruitment strategies built on an image of exclusivity, have an incentive to downplay that fact.

Columbia’s “Generous” Admissions Policy

Columbia College Chicago accepts more than 80 percent of undergraduate applicants. Does that mean Columbia sets the bar low? No, it means it’s typical, at least when it comes to acceptance rates. Although their acceptance rates may be identical to Columbia’s, most colleges like to refer to themselves as “selective” if they don’t admit everyone who applies. Columbia takes a different tack, choosing to champion inclusiveness over exclusivity, and describing its admissions policy as “generous.”

Mark Kelly, Columbia’s vice president of student affairs, notes that emphasizing generous admissions, rather than selectivity, is important to attracting the diverse student body that Columbia prizes. “High school grade-point averages and standardized tests are inaccurate measures of artistic and creative talent,” he says. “They do not speak to the talent, passion, and motivation young creative students bring to their chosen arts and media disciplines.” So while Columbia looks at GPAs and ACTs, those measures are not primary in the admissions process. Neither is a flashy portfolio, which is often an indication of a student’s past opportunities, rather than potential. Cutbacks in educational spending often target arts and media, leaving many potential applicants—particularly those from public schools—with plenty of talent and passion but without the sophisticated portfolios required of the most competitive art schools.

Such gaps in students’ high school educations may also leave them without an understanding of the differences between an arts education and a more traditional college curriculum. “I think about students growing up in rural farming communities,” says Murphy Monroe, Columbia’s executive director of admissions, citing one of many possible examples. These students may face two hurdles: First, no one in their families may have attended college, so they don’t know where to start. The entire application process is unfamiliar and intimidating. Second, these people may be flouting local conventions by pursuing study in the arts. “Columbia wants some of those students,” says Monroe, but only, he stresses, “the ones who are going to thrive here.”

Columbia’s admissions department’s job isn’t to bring in warm bodies; it is to bring in a freshman class that fits into the school and that has the right expectations about life at Columbia.

Generous Admissions, Selective Recruitment

Columbia’s particular brand of exclusivity starts with how people find out about the place. You won’t see recruitment ads for Columbia on billboards or buses; recruitment is far more targeted. Screening takes place before a prospective student even looks up the application, and the admissions staff works extensively with high school guidance counselors and alumni to help identify students who would thrive at Columbia. “The answer, to me, is a combination of carefully targeted recruitment and transparent messaging,” says Monroe. Columbia College is not right for everyone, but many of those for whom it is a perfect fit lack a traditional academic background or are new to the whole idea of college. They don’t want to play games; they want to study arts and media.

Those games are well known in the admissions world. Many small, private colleges reject students they believe view the campus as a safety school, giving them the satisfaction of reporting a lower acceptance rate while remaining confident that the rejected applicant will be able to receive a good education elsewhere. Other colleges encourage students who are not qualified or appropriate to apply, just so that they can then reject them. And other institutions recruit the students they really want for early admissions, then reject a large percentage of regular applicants.

These colleges have a stake in being seen as selective: an image of exclusivity is often equated with excellence, and that impresses parents, students, and alumni, no matter how difficult it really is to get in. Many public school districts want to create the image that all of their graduates go on to elite four-year colleges because that keeps up property values and makes taxpayers happier about levies. Private high schools have an even greater incentive to make parents believe they are getting their money’s worth. All of these factors play into the idea that college should be difficult to get into; therefore, an inclusive, generous-admissions campus must be a second-rate one.

Columbia College takes a different approach to recruitment. “There is something going on at Columbia that isn’t going on at the most selective art schools, and that is tied to diversity,” Monroe says. Columbia’s culture encourages an admissions policy that finds and welcomes students who will thrive at the college, whatever their previous academic experience may be. To determine who these students are, the admissions office relies on open-ended interview questions to help sort out which potential applicant is which, then recommends alternatives for people who are unlikely to be successful at Columbia. These discussions take place at high schools, at college fairs, during on-campus interviews, and via 50,000 phone calls and 100,000 emails received—and answered—each year.

Monroe says that roughly 80 percent of students admitted to Columbia College come from about 250 different high schools where the campus is known to the teachers and guidance counselors. The admissions staff visits these schools once or twice every year both to meet students and to get a feel for what takes place there day to day. “Your application is always taken in context of the high school you are coming from,” he says. Some high schools offer more opportunities than others, and the admissions office knows that. That’s why they consider more than just grades and test scores. After all, a high school that teaches to the test may have students with different results than one where the curriculum is more freeform.


Exclusivity ≠ Excellence

Debra McGrath is Columbia’s associate vice president of enrollment management. “What is amazing about generous admissions, especially in the way Columbia has defined it,” she says, “is that the policy is understood and embraced, not only by students who appreciate a school that will allow them to ‘begin at the beginning,’ but by students whose strong academic preparation and accomplishments would allow them to compete successfully for admission to those schools that truly are highly selective.”

In other words, “Students who could go anywhere are choosing Columbia because they believe we offer the best opportunity for creative development, and they understand that diversity is central to growth in the arts and media. Not only is it central to their own personal growth as artists and communicators, it is essential to the growth and advancement of these fields.”

“Columbia’s commitment to its mission is driven by the high value it places on giving access and voice to cultures and viewpoints underrepresented in the documented history of cultural creation,” Kelly says. Students who are clearly not right for Columbia are rejected, as are those who do not have the academic skills to do college-level work. Some of the students who are accepted are advised to wait a year before matriculating. Admissions counselors may suggest they take community college classes to strengthen academic skills, spend time on their portfolios, or look more carefully at their ability to take on the cost of tuition. In addition, Kelly says, many admitted students are required to complete the four-week Bridge Program, which helps build skills in college-level reading, writing, and math work. Last year, 190 students were referred to the program; 45 percent enrolled, and 90 percent completed it.

People studying and working in the arts know they have to challenge convention every day. The students and faculty at Columbia know this, and so does the admissions staff. Its approach combines recruiting; generous, holistic admissions policies; and transparency of information to create a vibrant campus community. “You’ll find experiences here that are unique,” Monroe says, and that requires a unique admissions process.

Ann C. Logue is the author of several books, including Socially Responsible Investing for Dummies (Wiley, 2009), and has written for Alpha, Barron’s, Newsweek Japan, Business Week Chicago, and other publications. She is a lecturer in finance at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago.