Northwestern University’s Class of 2016 is now official. After the most competitive admissions process to date, the entering freshman class is the most diverse and academically gifted in the school’s 161-year history.

Of the 2,082 first-year students who have committed to Northwestern, a record 44 percent are students of color, including 20 percent Asian-Americans, 9 percent Hispanic and 8 percent African-American. Seven percent are international students.

In addition to racial and ethnic diversity, the entering class is once again diverse socioeconomically, with 13 percent of students receiving federal Pell Grants, the fourth consecutive year of at least 12 percent representation in this regard. (Altogether, Northwestern will spend $118 million on undergraduate financial aid in the 2012-13 school year.)

“Northwestern believes wholeheartedly in the rich social science research that documents all of the benefits that flow to students who study in a broadly diverse setting of peers,” said Michael Mills, associate provost for University enrollment at Northwestern. “Consequently, it is deeply gratifying to welcome such a rich tapestry of students to the University.”

For the ninth consecutive year, the University set a new record for the number of freshman applications received — topping 32,000. Rising applications mean, of course, that a lower percentage of students were admitted — 15 percent this year, versus 18 percent last year and 23 percent two years ago.

But perhaps the best illustration of Northwestern’s growing reputation among the nation’s most selective schools is the proportion of admitted freshmen choosing Northwestern, or “yield” in admissions parlance. For the second consecutive year, yield rose five percentage points, reaching 43 percent.

“The steep increases of applications and yield rates in recent years reflect the growing recognition that Northwestern is one of the nation’s very best universities,” Mills said.

Dean of Admission Christopher Watson agrees. “Just four years ago our yield was less than 31 percent,” Watson said. “Even fellow deans at peer schools appreciate how rare it is to see an increase of this magnitude in such a short period of time.”

Mills and Watson point to the breadth of opportunities made available by Northwestern’s six strong undergraduate schools as a key competitive advantage that is fueling the momentum of the University’s reputation as a “hot” school. “Northwestern has a culture of cross-school collaboration between faculty and students that sets it apart from its peers,” Watson said.

Mills points to the arts as a distinguishing and compelling feature of the undergraduate experience at Northwestern. “Our undergraduate programs in music, theatre, film, performance studies, dance and similar disciplines produce a creative vibrancy here that is totally unique in my experience,” he said. “I can’t think of any other school that has achieved a critical mass of students who are at once deeply analytical and wildly creative.”

Examples abound of Northwestern alumni who fit that bill. Mills mentioned Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, who was recently profiled in Northwestern magazine. She manages the day-to-day operations for the cutting-edge company that designs and manufactures rockets and launches satellites into orbit.

Through its recently released strategic plan, Northwestern is focusing on its comparative advantages, including the array of opportunities it provides for experiential learning inside and outside the classroom.

Members of the Class of 2016 will benefit greatly from that focus, whether they participate in premier musical and theatrical performances on stage, undertake research projects with world-class scientists, take part in investigative journalism related to critical issues of justice, make documentaries abroad, work with industry leaders to take lifesaving devices from ideas to market or undertake leadership initiatives in nearby communities or abroad.

And students, themselves, increasingly are winning big awards. The increasing number of prestigious awards, including Rhodes, Churchill, Marshall and Guggenheim fellowships, that undergraduates, graduate students and young alumni have been winning in recent years attests to the quality of a Northwestern education.

After members of the Class of 2016 arrive, they will have ample opportunities to boost the numbers of those awards further.

Come fall, the newest Wildcats will get a red carpet welcome when they are celebrated with much fanfare in the traditional rally for freshmen, aptly called March Thru the Arch. Led by the Northwestern University Wildcat Marching Band and cheered on by current Northwestern students, they will end up in Deering Meadow for a rally saturated with purple pride.

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