The majority of students who benefited from political connections when applying to the University of Illinois attended elite, affluent high schools, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis of admissions data.
Just how skewed was the campus clout list? Half of the 616 Illinois students who received preferential treatment from 2005 to 2009 graduated from just 22 high schools, all but one in the metro area. Meanwhile, at least 668 Illinois high schools had no clouted applicants at all.
Among the least connected were students from Chicago Public Schools. The state's largest school district has about 19,000 graduating seniors each year. Yet only 25 were placed on the clout list over five years -- fewer than Highland Park High School merited by itself, with 30. The north suburban school graduates about 425 students per year.
Admissions clout clearly thrived in places where families were politically savvy and well-positioned to tap into connections with elected officials and university trustees, said educators and other observers.
"The wealthy schools already have an advantage, and this provides them just one more advantage of how to navigate the system," said Maribeth Vander Weele, one of seven commissioners charged with looking into U. of I. admissions practices.
Others that tallied the most applicants on the Urbana-Champaign clout list include North Shore powerhouse high schools like New Trier Township in Winnetka, Glenbrook North in Northbrook and Glenbrook South in Glenview; private schools such as Loyola Academy in Wilmette, St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago and Fenwick High School in Oak Park; and top feeders from the affluent west suburbs including Benet Academy in Lisle, Hinsdale Central High School and York Community High in Elmhurst.
During a recent hearing of the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, Chairman Abner Mikva asked undergraduate admissions director Stacey Kostell whether she was struck by how many students on the clout list, known internally as "Category I," came from the North Shore.
"Honestly, no," Kostell replied. "These kids were admitted because of power and money."
The Chicago Tribune received the database of admissions numbers, a public document prepared for the commission, under the state's Freedom of Information Act. It shows how many applicants from each school received undue consideration, but also details how many candidates in total applied to, were accepted by and attended U. of I. from each high school.
The database does not include nearly 200 other clouted undergraduate students who didn't apply directly from an Illinois high school, such as transfer students or those from outside the state. It also does not include the dozens of graduate school and law applicants whose applications got special treatment, according to a Tribune investigation that uncovered the practice.
In the most recent year, 10 students from Highland Park High were on the clout list, more than any other Illinois school. All of them gained entry, university records show.
Highland Park college counselor Bill Morrison said he did not know who the 10 applicants were from among the 152 students who applied to the U. of I., the most popular destination among students from the North Shore high school.
He noted that the connections that landed students on the clout list were made outside school channels; unless an applicant's credentials were significantly out of line, an admission might not have raised eyebrows.
Of students admitted this year, "none jumped off the page as being out of the norm," Morrison said.
Being tagged Category I didn't mean automatic admission for applicants. This year, for instance, 160 candidates were on the undergraduate clout list. Of them, 70 gained entry on their own merits, 33 were admitted after their rejections were overturned and the rest were denied, Kostell said.
Admissions officials have said they often alerted high school counselors when a clouted student with subpar credentials was admitted over classmates with better credentials. In some cases, the U. of I. apparently hoped to lessen fallout at top feeder schools by delaying the applicant's notification until the end of the school year.
That admissions officers were aware the clout decisions sometimes caused a stir at high schools is evidenced by internal e-mails obtained by the Tribune.
Last winter, an admissions officer was told to place a student on the wait list even though her credentials at Fenwick High School were "fairly weak."
"I don't have any wiggle room on this one," Keith Marshall, associate provost for enrollment management, wrote in a Feb. 11 e-mail.
"Done, but this will look off with the high school," replied admissions officer Jennifer Piercy.
Fenwick college counselor and interim principal Richard Borsch said the university did not call to explain any questionable admissions this year. No decisions triggered alarm because U. of I. applicants now may ask to be reconsidered for another program if not accepted into the college of their choice.
"In the 36 years I've been dealing with Illinois, I honestly can tell you there have been maybe one or two times where I have been angry to the point of saying, 'This is patently unfair to the other kids,' " Borsch said.
New Trier Township High School college counselor Jim Conroy said he was unaware seven of the school's 312 applicants were on the Category I list this year. However, he said he called the university this spring after a candidate with borderline credentials was admitted, and several classmates questioned the student's merits. "One of the kids came to me and said, 'Is this fair?' I called and found out ... it wasn't fair. I was told it was a connection [that got the student admitted]," Conroy said.
"All this reinforces the statement, 'It's not what you know, it's who you know,' " Conroy said. "That's the part I get more upset about."