New Trier High School in Winnetka is one of the state's best, and each year about 300 of its seniors apply to the University of Illinois' flagship campus in Urbana.
But counselors there and at other Chicago-area high schools are worried that fewer UI spots will be available for their students if the university moves to the Common Application Consortium, as proposed under a new enrollment management plan.
The consortium allows students to apply to numerous top colleges through one form, and supporters say it gives schools access to a broader pool of applicants. But it also requires more work by students and counselors than the UI's application, including letters of recommendation that the UI doesn't accept, by policy.
More than two dozen counselors wrote to President Michael Hogan in November, saying the move could burden smaller or inner-city schools that don't have large counseling staffs, cost the university more money and, if it results in higher out-of-state enrollment, keep some Illinois residents from getting in to the UI. In a recent survey of Chicago-area counselors, four out of five opposed the idea.
"We believe that it will not serve the best interests of students in the state of Illinois," said the letter from James Conroy and other counselors at New Trier.
The Common App, as it's known, requires letters of recommendation from high school counselors, and in some cases teachers, too, Conroy said. The UI doesn't use letters of recommendation in its admissions decisions even if people send them, a policy solidified after the Category I scandal to prevent undue influence, counselors said.
No decision about the Common App will likely be made at the UI until an enrollment management director is hired, but "it's still a viable option that we are going to explore," said Charlie Evans, UI associate vice president for academic affairs.
Evans said he understands why counselors might not like it, but "I think it's a good thing for students. You fill out one application, and you can explore several options."
Many of New Trier's students already use the Common App, so in that sense it would make counselors' jobs easier, Conroy said.
But he added, "I just think of all the kids across the state of Illinois in small high schools doing the Common App. Unless the U of I offers their own application also, that's a concern."
Tight budgets have forced counselors to take on greater caseloads, especially in public schools, said Emmett McGovern, director of student services at St. Patrick High School in Chicago.
Counselors at St. Patrick's, an all-boys Catholic School of 800, would have to write 50-plus letters of recommendation for seniors by the UI's Nov. 1 priority application deadline, said McGovern, who also wrote to Hogan.
"To what end?" he asked. "They're filling their campuses every year with the top freshmen in the country, for sure in Illinois."
"It's about access and equity," said New Trier counselor Deb Donley, predicting the number of minority applicants to the UI might drop.
Schools often move to the Common Application to boost their out-of-state applicant numbers, Conroy said. That would be fine if the UI expanded its freshman class size to accommodate higher out-of-state enrollment, but if not, "that'll be less room for my kids," he said.
About 200 New Trier were accepted at the UI this year, and 80 wound up enrolling, he said.
"We're all for geographic diversity in our state university. If it were funded by the Legislature appropriately, we wouldn't have to go out of state to recruit. Let's be honest," Conroy said.
At the UI, freshmen who are Illinois residents are paying $11,104 in tuition this year, compared to $25,246 for those from outside the state.
The UI's Evans said joining the Common App would generate more applications from out of state, but "it doesn't mean you necessarily have to accept all those students." Illinois residents would continue to have preference, he said.
"What it does is allow you to take a strategic look at what is the best balance academically. It's not an automatic that you're going to back out Illinois students in favor of somebody from New York or Massachusetts. It opens up the university and its departments to a broader range of students. I see that as good. I think we want to look at the best students."
Evans said the university hasn't set a specific goal for out-of-state student enrollment.
This year, 22.5 percent of the entering freshman class came from out of state, up slightly from 20.6 percent a year ago, according to UI records. The overall class size also rose, from 6,936 to 7,255 students, and so did the number of in-state students enrolled, from 5,508 to 5,626.
Conroy said the UI has to pay to be part of the Common App and likely would have to hire people just to read the letters of recommendation. Others say the Common App can streamline the process, saving money in other areas.
Evans said the Common App would create more work for the UI internally but believes it will give the university "broader exposure."
"I think all three of the campuses will benefit from it," he said, acknowledging there's been debate internally.
Some high school counselors, even on Conroy's staff, like the idea, arguing that it would simplify the process for their students.
"For me, the sooner the better," said Linda Connelly, a counselor at New Trier.
In his reply to the counselors, Hogan said data from schools that are part of the consortium "suggest that adoption of the Common Application simplifies the application process for students applying to multiple schools and increases the number, quality, and diversity of the applicant pool. And the University has some flexibility on the information submitted."
Hogan promised counselors he would seek "your input and advice on how to reach our shared goals of serving the best and brightest students in Illinois."