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Meet the class of ’08

Denver attorney Alan Hendrix, BSBA ’76, JD ’80, a Hyde interviewer for three years, says the new crop of DU students are “thoughtful, involved in the community and have this breadth of exposure to the world." Photo: Tim Ryan

Many of the members of DU’s entering class were born in 1986, the year President Ronald Reagan faced a nation stunned by the deaths of the Challenger Seven and said, “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”

In retrospect, his words seem prophetic. For this generation of students—who have been dubbed Generation Y, Echo Boomers and Millennials—their world, like that of the WWII generation, has been shaped by an attack on American soil. On Sept. 11, 2001, members of the Class of ’08 were high school sophomores who saw their known world crumble along with the Twin Towers and evaporate in the smoke rising from the Pentagon and a raw Pennsylvania field.

Fear is not unfamiliar to these young people, whose early lives have been circumscribed by their parents’ terror of everything from child abduction and school violence to the dread that their offspring might indulge in the excesses pioneered by their own generation in the ’60s and ’70s. These are youth accustomed to being buckled into car seats, strollers and even leashes, supervised when playing soccer, hovered over when doing homework and adjudicated by adults when they quarrel.

“These students are as different as they could be from cynical Gen Xers,” says Claire Raines, author of Connecting Generations and Generations at Work. “These are students who are idealistic, enthusiastic and who might be overconfident. They have been taught that they are very special.”

Whatever sweeping generalizations are made about the Class of ’08, one thing is certain: The University of Denver specially selected each of the 1,138 class members for their “DU-ness.” If all goes as planned, this class—chosen for its fit with DU ideals—should persist and succeed at historically unprecedented rates.

Getting personal

In an initiative that has garnered national and international attention, the University today requires that all undergraduate applicants submit to a personal interview. Named for a much-loved DU language professor who taught from 1884–1911, the Ammi Hyde Interview seeks to look beyond grade point averages and SAT scores to identify students who embody three key characteristics: a motivation to learn, a concern for honesty and integrity, and openness to differences and new ideas.

The interview was introduced in 2001, when only early-action students—those who apply early for a first crack at scholarships and admission—were interviewed. That year, 1,118 early-action applicants sat before panels of DU faculty, staff and alumni armed with 13 questions designed to plumb students’ hearts and minds. Overall, Hyde participants responded favorably: Students liked making a personal case for their applications, while alumni, faculty and staff enjoyed getting a sneak peak at the incoming class.

Since then, the program has ramped up to accommodate all undergraduate applicants, a number that runs into the thousands. This year, transfer students applying for next fall also will be interviewed.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” says interview Director Megan Hinton, a DU conflict management master’s degree candidate. “The logistics are very time consuming.”

In service of Hyde, Hinton spends all year wrangling DU prospective students, faculty and staff, admission counselors and alumni to make it happen. To wit: the shaping of the class of “aught eight” required 454 alumni volunteers, 251 faculty and staff interviewers, hotel reservations and accommodations in 29 cities, 4,000 students and more than $400,000.

Although many selective institutions suggest an interview as part of the application process, few require it. DU may be the only school asking every applicant to sit before a panel to make his or her case. Proponents of college interviews say more information is always better in making an admission decision. Critics point out that personal interviews favor more outgoing students. “Many schools today focus solely on students’ test scores,” Hinton says. “The Hyde Interview is a great tool to gain additional insight into a student’s character.”

Admission officers are quick to point out that Hyde is about finding students who “fit.” A straight-A student with stellar SATs might not receive an invitation to enroll if Hyde reveals a penchant for bigotry or an inability to cooperate with peers. Likewise, a student who appears lackluster on paper might shine during Hyde when it is revealed that a parent’s death disrupted a critical semester in high school.

In all, Hinton reports, the interview affected just over 200 decisions for the Class of ’08—one way or the other.

The fact that DU spends almost a half million dollars annually to find good fits is telling. Some faculty have carped that Hyde is merely a marketing ploy, and indeed, Hyde has generated high-profile stories in The Boston Globe and The Washington Post and on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Hyde also is very “on brand.” When an institution that touts personal attention in the classroom goes to the trouble of interviewing every student personally, it sends a message of congruence.

But Hyde also is a way for the University to look inward: In order to capture students who fit perfectly, the University must know what it does well and whom it best serves. These were issues a faculty and staff committee wrestled with in creating the Hyde characteristics. And the ideals the University has chosen to embrace—motivation to learn, honesty and openness—are designed to net a cohort of hardworking, honest, open-minded students who will develop into successful, involved citizens and alumni.

“If you were going to hire someone for a job, you would never think of not interviewing them,” Hinton explains. “These are people who are going to be on our campus for four years and are going to be our alumni.”

Follow-up surveys about the interview reveal that overwhelmingly, students like the process, saying they appreciate being heard and treated like an individual. Heather Kingsley, a first-year student from Aurora, Colo., credits Hyde with “getting her in.” “I think it gave me a better chance,” she says.

Each Hyde Interview lasts 20 minutes, after which the interview team scores the student on a 1-to-5 scale. Students who seem to possess all of the characteristics DU wants receive a score of 1. Students receiving a 5 display few or none of the characteristics in question.

Interviewers have remarked about how impressed they’ve been with the students’ quality, and how ambitious, and for the most part, clean-cut they seemed.

“I’ve been blown away,” says Denver attorney Alan Hendrix, BSBA ’76, JD ’80, a Hyde interviewer for three years. “They’re thoughtful, involved in the community and have this breadth of exposure to the world. It’s hard to imagine my peer group having done this.”

By the numbers

So what are these specially selected frosh really like? The numbers tell part of the story. The majority of the class is white with almost 15 percent identified as domestic minority students—a proportion that’s remained fairly static in recent years. Their mean SAT is 1146—a number that’s been climbing slowly but steadily for at least a decade. There are 12 Boettcher Scholars—more than at any other time in DU’s history and more than any other school in Colorado. Their average GPA is 3.34. And their mean Hyde rating: 2.

The class hails overwhelmingly from Colorado—46 percent—with another 22 percent coming from other Western and Southwestern states. A tiny percentage of international students joined this class from countries as far flung as China and Kuwait.

What seems really different about the ’08s is their level of interest in DU: This class really wants a University of Denver education.

Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Tom Willoughby explains that Hyde created a kind of chilling effect for students with only a passing interest in DU. The fact that DU required an interview turned off some applicants. Although DU saw more applications initiated for the Class of 2008 than the previous year, the University netted 200 fewer finished applications.

“We ended up with a very serious pool,” Willoughby explains. “These were students who were willing to complete that extra step. It makes a statement about their level of interest.” Another telling factor is something enrollment professionals call “yield”—the percentage of accepted students who actually show up to enroll. Last year, DU accepted 79 percent of first-year applicants, and 30 percent of those applicants actually enrolled. For the Class of ’08, just 73 percent of applicants were accepted, yet the yield jumped to 34 percent.

In the world of college admissions, a 4-percent increase in yield is huge, explains Todd Rinehart, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment.

DU’s enrollment officers also had their eye on “melt”—the percentage of students who make a deposit but don’t enroll. In admissions’ parlance, the so-called summer melt occurs in the hot months between depositing in May and enrolling in September. The Class of ’08 “melted” in the 7 percent range, 4 percent less than the previous year.

Admission officials were caught off guard by these unusually robust results. Although the University had intended to enroll 1,050 new students this fall, 88 more than planned actually showed up. That may not seem like much, but because DU is committed to maintaining its vaunted 13:1 student-faculty ratio, student numbers must be carefully managed. So next year, the University plans to enroll just 1,075 first-year students.

Student retention and graduation rates are numbers that also weigh heavily on the minds of higher education administrators. If, as Willoughby thinks, Hyde “pre-qualified” students who were the most interested in DU, then it would logically follow that this class will persist and graduate at higher rates as well.

The rate at which students persist or are retained is a number that colleges and universities nationwide obsess over. While data points like “number of applications,” “yield” and “melt” speak to a university’s marketing efforts, retention relates to the product and outcome. Are students happy with their educational experience, and are they staying in school and graduating?

The University’s current first-year persistence rate is 86 percent. That is, 86 percent of students return for their sophomore year. Roughly 70 percent of DU students go on to graduate. Although it remains to be seen how vigorously the Class of 2008 will persist, early indications are good.

“My staff is saying this class is the most responsive and responsible they’ve seen in a long time,” observes Associate Provost for Academic Resources Jo Calhoun. “They seem enthusiastic and really engaged in getting “involved on campus.”

English Assoc. Prof. Margaret Whitt, PhD ’86, agrees. She has experienced every possible permutation of student sloth and ennui, but this year’s crop has surprised her: The Class of ’08 seems motivated to excel.

“Nobody skips the reading,” she says of the 15 students in her first-year seminar course, Fair Play/Foul Play: Reading the Rules Through the Literature of the Civil Rights Movement. “I see it reflected in their quiz grades and in class discussions. When everybody has read the text, there’s this wonderful exchange of ideas.”

Aaron Schwarzberg, a first-year student from West Palm Beach, Fla., and a member of DU’s student senate, describes the personality of his class as “outgoing, eclectic, personable and friendly.” Mark Niebur, from Englewood, Colo., calls his cohort “excited.”

Faculty observe that the good students are extremely well prepared, a result of student participation in high school advanced-placement classes and International Baccalaureate programs. Average students are still, well, average.

Whitt notes that of her 15 students, only one comes from a family where the parents divorced. Their backgrounds seem remarkably traditional—in some cases, dad is the breadwinner and mom doesn’t work. Every one of her students is registered to vote.

Calhoun calls the Class of ’08 “dutiful.” Like university administrators nationwide, she’s noticed an enormous increase in the level of parental involvement with their students. Her office regularly fields calls from parents—not because a student has messed up so much as because they are interested in sharing information or checking on a child’s progress. “Today,” Calhoun says, “when you admit a student, you admit the family.”

Observers report that the Aught Eights are less cynical. They aren’t disenchanted post-Vietnam war kids, nor are they jaded Gen Xers. Though this somewhat coddled group holds some politically conservative ideas, they strive for a non-judgmental position. Diversity isn’t something they fear—it’s something they like and take for granted.

Gerald Trujillo, a first-year student from Denver, puts it this way: “There are so many different people who can relate to any experience. We all want to meet as many people as possible while taking care of our studies. I’m sure there is someone from every culture here.”

Whitt has noticed an enormous difference in the level of not only racial acceptance, but acceptance of different sexual orientations. When a gay character turns up in a text, it no longer makes some students anxious or upset, she says. It’s a non-issue. “This is the biggest change I’ve seen through the years,” Whitt remarks. “They have become more and more accepting of differences. They are more interested in people because they come from someplace else.”

Lest anyone think this is a class of angels spooling out papers on deadline and embracing causes of social justice, it’s not. First-year students still behave like first-year students and test their limits and those of the institution. Alcohol violations by first-year students are up this fall, a phenomenon administrators link to increased vigilance on DU’s part. Drugs, on the other hand, don’t seem much in evidence.

While DU faculty and staff manage the Class of ’08’s adolescent forays into adult thought and responsibility, enrollment officials are preparing to interview an estimated 4,500 students for the Class of ’09.

Every year, faculty and staff tweak the interview in an effort to continually improve the process. This coming year, for example, previous questions about community service have been eliminated in the belief that community involvement is revealed through the paper application. Questions also have been honed to target past behavior. Instead of posing hypothetical questions like, “Are you interested in studying abroad?” interviewers might ask, “What experiences have you had with other cultures?”

“We are really emphasizing the behavioral interview style,” explains Director of University Assessment Sheila Summers Thompson, BSBA ’83, MA ’87, PhD ’95. “We are looking for examples of behaviors or actions they have taken. It’s a human resources approach from the ’70s—past behavior predicts future behavior.”

At the same time, though, administrators will be anxiously watching how many Aught Eights return for their sophomore year.

“What we’re trying to find are students who are motivated to learn, who are honest and will accept new ideas,” Rinehart explains. “We are trying to identify those students who fit and will persist and graduate.”


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