Are people afraid of the University of Chicago?

I visited New York City over Thanksgiving with extended family. It was a fantastically fun and relaxing trip. On top of all the lights and crowds and excitement, something else really caught my attention. Standing in line one night, I overheard someone in my group say that there has been a 20% decrease in applications to the University of Chicago over the past five years. It has to do, he said, with the growing violence in Chicago. People are scared to go there. (I checked with my wife, and she heard the same thing I did.) My immediate thought was that there is no way there's been a decrease like that to such a prestigious school, no matter what the news reports say about Chicago. But I didn't have any evidence for my argument. And I'd only met this guy, who is really nice and really smart, a few hours earlier. And it's the holidays. So I let it go...

...but I couldn't let it go. This week I did a bit of investigating to learn more about applications and crime near U Chicago. And it turns out he's right. Kind of. 

The University of Chicago reports there were 27,694 applications for the class of 2021, which is actually a 10% increase over the 25,307 applications for the class of 2017. 

However, the most recent batch of applications does represent an almost 12% decrease from the more than 31,000 applicants the year before, for the class of 2020.

I checked a lot of other schools to see if there was a large drop in applications across the board, but there wasn't. So while "20% drop over five years" is a bit overblown and very inaccurate, "12% drop in one year" is still a big deal. There's no way to know what accounts for the decrease, but it's not unreasonable to see the constant coverage of crime in Chicago as a factor.

Should people be scared? Is the University of Chicago unsafe? Nope. While Chicago definitely had a disturbing spike in 2016 for murders and shootings, the city's violent crime rate is still well below many other large cities' rates (but well above New York, L.A, and Houston). And Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood where the University is located, is not a high-crime neighborhood. That's not to say that it's a peaceful Utopia, and it is indeed surrounded by neighborhoods that do have higher crime rates, but Hyde Park isn't much different in terms of crime than inner-city neighborhoods of any large American city. 

If it's crime you're worried about, you may want to focus less on Illinois and more on California: in this 2015 report, three of the top five schools for overall crime were Stanford, UCLA, and UC Berkeley. The Department of Education also gives detailed crime reports for any school--it will even let you compare schools. Property crimes like burglary and auto theft are the most common at any university.

But there's more. I have a former student at the University of Chicago, so I emailed and asked him if safety is something people worry about there. He told me that the fears about violence are overblown, but that it is something people think about and talk about. He said there's some tension between the campus and the surrounding communities: "The best way to put it might be something like this: I both feel safe and think my college could help students and the surrounding neighborhoods feel safe in ways that are more respectful to, and less dismissive of, those neighborhoods.

The other thing he told me that I was completely unaware of is that the U Chicago's police force is one of the largest private security forces in the country. And, even though they're a private force for the school, they have jurisdiction over an entire neighborhood, which has many more non-student residents than students. When the university says they often have an officer on every corner, they mean that literally. So when it comes to charges of racial profiling and aggressive tactics, many U Chicago students think their school may be too safe.

The other thing that the "20% decrease" conversation made me think about is that, in all my years of teaching and advising about college admissions, I've never heard anyone mention crime or safety as a factor in their decision. It's simply never been a discussion I've had. I'm sure that perceptions of crime and safety are part of some people's decision to avoid universities in urban areas, but I've never heard anyone say that explicitly. I've sent students on to Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans, Seattle, and other cities, but nobody's ever mentioned crime or violence. 

How should you think about safety and crime when you're choosing schools for application? I wouldn't worry about it too much. Crime happens, and it's horrible, and there's no guarantee you won't be a victim wherever you go. If you go somewhere with lots of cars, like the South or the West, then you'll see more auto theft. If you go to an urban area with lots of pedestrians, there will be more muggings. But being a college student, even on the South Side of Chicago, doesn't make you extra-vulnerable. If the college makes a difference, it's to make you less vulnerable.

The two biggest crime and safety issues for colleges are issues virtually everywhere, not just particular geographies: sexual assault and alcohol abuse. These are serious, and you need to think, prepare, and advocate. But they're not likely to affect your school choice.

If you want to go to Chicago, go to Chicago. If you want to avoid Chicago, avoid Chicago. But please don't let inaccurate or out-of-context information sway your decision.

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Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images News / Getty Images
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images News / Getty Images