Forward thinking

(Photography by Jean Lachat)

Forward thinking

The UChicago Empower Initiative changes the admissions conversation, adds more financial aid.

In June the University announced it will no longer require the SAT/ACT for College applications—a decision widely reported in national and international media. While hundreds of US colleges do not require standardized tests, “Chicago’s move is the first by one of the very top research universities in the country,” Inside Higher Ed reported.

The new UChicago Empower Initiative updates this and other admissions policies to enable students to better represent themselves. “We want students to understand the application does not define you. You define the application,” says James G. Nondorf, vice president and dean of admissions.

The initiative also includes a substantial enhancement of financial aid. Tuition will now be free for families with incomes under $125,000 a year (with typical assets). Families earning less than $60,000 (again, with typical assets) will have tuition, fees, and room and board covered. First-generation students will receive a $20,000 scholarship over four years and a guaranteed paid internship the summer after their freshman year, regardless of family income.

Critics of standardized tests have long argued that the test scores correlate more strongly with socioeconomic background than with academic ability—while contributing to a lack of diversity on campus. UChicago Empower is intended to “level the playing field for talented first-generation and low-income students who perceive top-ranked colleges as inaccessible,” Nondorf says.

As part of the test-optional process, applicants can choose which information best represents their skills and college readiness, including standardized test scores other than the SAT/ACT or nonstandard materials and accomplishments. Prospective students will have the option of including a two-minute video introduction as part of their applications, rather than an on-campus or alumni interview.

In-person interviews—both on campus and alumni interviews—are being phased out. First-generation, low-income, and other underrepresented students often couldn’t take advantage of interviews because of time, cost, and other factors. Instead, the Office of College Admissions will partner with Wisr, an online platform that allows alumni and prospective students to connect before and during the admissions process. Through Wisr, alumni volunteers can interact with students of similar interests, answer questions, and share knowledge with a broad set of students, unlimited by geographical distance.

The new initiative “continues the College’s unwavering commitment to access and inclusion,” says John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, dean of the College and a first-generation student himself. “Throughout the past century, UChicago has considered a broad diversity of cultural perspectives and academic merit without regard to socioeconomic class.” The Odyssey Scholarship Program, the flagship financial aid initiative established in 2007, removes such barriers to a College education by eliminating student loans and providing other kinds of support.

The College admissions process always stresses to applicants that there’s no one piece of information—academic and extracurricular records, essays, or letters of recommendation—that alone determines whether or not a student would be a good fit for the College. Instead, each application goes through a holistic review process. Admissions officers say that students’ transcripts—their high school grades and rigor of courses—along with their responses to the University’s famously creative supplemental essay questions, are the most valuable predictors of future performance.

But wait, there’s more. UChicago Empower expands the College’s current Police and Fire Scholarships for the City of Chicago nationwide: select children of police officers and firefighters will receive full-tuition scholarships. The College is also working to increase the number of veterans on campus by partnering with the Posse Foundation Veterans Program. The first undergraduate Veterans Posse cohort will enter UChicago in autumn 2020.

The initiative offers more kinds of support for current College students too. For example, through Wisr, first-generation and low-income students will be able to connect more easily with alumni mentors.

A new Summer Scholars Program for African American Students, sponsored by the Allison Davis Jr. Education Summit and the UChicago Women’s Board, will provide fully funded summer opportunities at UChicago for talented students from underrepresented high schools. This program builds on the success of the Neubauer Adelante Summer Scholars program for students from Latino/Hispanic communities.

UChicago Empower also targets high schools, earmarking new funding for professional development programming for counselors from rural schools, as well as expanding admissions workshops for Illinois high school students.

Although alumni interviews are being phased out, College Admissions still needs an army of volunteers. Alumni are invited to attend college fairs held around the country, where they can chat with prospective students about their own College experiences and answer questions. Alumni are also needed to mentor undergraduates through Wisr. If you’re interested in volunteering, please contact College Admissions at