This is purely anecdotal, but my sense is that admissions committees don't notice those things at all. People who had read my writing sample closely enough to quote from it weren't sure when I'd graduated from college. I'd been away for four years (granted, this is between BA and a PhD program, not between an MA and a PhD) and I really don't think anyone cared what I'd done with that time (which was nothing academic at all). I think if you stay current on the scholarship (and really, what's going to change a whole lot in a year?) you'll be fine. Or anyway there are probably bigger things to worry about, if you're looking for something to worry about.
You should canvas some of the current students and see how they feel about this issue, which is an important one. Individual responses will vary, of course, but I imagine you'll be able to get a sense for how the program works to support its own--if it does. It's probably a good idea to ask respectfully and be aware that people can be touchy about things you might not anticipate, but I imagine most students will be happy to speak candidly to your concerns.
If you haven't been contacted by any current students yet, try asking the DGS to put you in touch with a few. If no one will put you in touch with current students, I'd consider that a bad sign.
Just to be clear, when I said "We waitlistees will hear good news only if more than half the people admitted decline their offers," I was referring only to other people on the same waiting list that I'm on. Your school may well work differently, although I think what I described is close to SOP for most departments. Certainly there are variations. Bigger programs may take more people off the waiting list--but they may also have longer waiting lists. 10 is the shortest I've heard of, but I don't think that means I'm any more likely to get in.
It would certainly seem more humane, but it doesn't ultimately make more sense. Even the very best programs enroll about half their admits. If they only admitted their desired cohort number, they'd be bound to give those students until the 15th to decide. And when half of them went to Harvard instead of Berkeley, or vice versa, Harvard or Berkeley would be scrambling to put together half its cohort in four days. Not going to happen. They need to admit a substantially bigger number.
This happens sometimes. Most schools admit more than they plan to enroll. Often twice as many, in fact. The school that I'm waitlisted at, for instance, admitted 21 people this year for a cohort of 10 or 11. In addition, there are 10 people on the waiting list. We waitlistees will hear good news only if more than half the people admitted decline their offers.
UPenn (in-?)famously suffered a massive over-enrollment a couple years ago and had to drastically scale back the number of offers they were able to make the following year because they'd used up too much funding on their larger-than-anticipated class. They're back to normal, now, I think. It seems like most programs have it down to a pretty good routine, but these things do happen.
Sounds like you have two good options. Personally, I would not make my decision based on recruitment policies. It's nice that UNC is sending regular emails. I like it when schools do that, too. But when they do, it's because there's a department-wide policy about it. And ultimately whether it's an official policy to do that sort of recruitment likely won't affect your experience once you're in a given program.
Nor would I base my decision on how I felt about a school's campus. It's important to feel like you're in a place where you can get work done, and where your personal life will be minimally disrupted, but I think the kinds of questions many of us asked about residential experience when considering undergraduate schools are not relevant to graduate study. Faculty resources, library resources, and financial resources are all going to be much more important than "campus feel" when it comes to producing a good dissertation, which is what will get you a job (or not). Being near other universities may turn out to be important too: I didn't apply to Duke or UNC, but I imagine being at the center of a major research corridor could give you a lot of opportunities. (NB: lyonessrampant posted about this above while I was in the process of typing--so you now have two anonymous strangers recommending you consider this).
If both schools are equally strong in your field, as you say, then I think the next step would be to look carefully at the rate at which they've been able to place PhDs in tenure track jobs over the last few years. I would also look at where they were able to place people--whether at regional teaching colleges or RI universities, etc. My guess is UNC is going to come out on top in that analysis, but I'm prepared to be surprised.
This is totally anecdotal and therefore probably unhelpful, but I met an amazing lady at one of my visits who was in her mid forties and a new admit. She'd been ABD in Renaissance at a top ten program a long time ago but left without the dissertation, was away from academia for fifteen years, then came back to do contemporary pop culture at a different top ten program. Awesome stories abound. I wouldn't worry about being exactly like every other candidate. If you can articulate your interests in a critically current way (that second part is important), I think you're probably viable whatever your age. It's just a question of getting the pieces of writing in order.
And for what it's worth I will have been away from the English department for four years when I head back in the fall. And I wasn't teaching or taking classes in the meantime. I relied a lot on advisors, friends, and family (in and out of academia) who read my statement. And I'm very lucky that my college professors were still willing to work with me on that stuff. But my time away from school helped me put the kinds of critical questions I was interested in asking in some sort of perspective, and I think I was a better candidate for it. So there are pros and cons, I suppose. Again, anecdotal, not helpful, &c. Just sayin'.
Well if you plan to apply during the second year of your hypothetical UIC program, it would effectively negate the "extra time to develop relationships" factor as well as the thesis option. You state above that you know you'd have to take a year off after the one year program, but to get the benefits your advisor describes, you'd have to do that with the two year program as well. You may be totally cool with that, just pointing it out.
I would go read the threads on Chicago's MAPH if you want to hear about how people have made use of a one-year MA. It's perfectly possible. Being around for two years doesn't guarantee that you'll ultimately get more attention or have better relationships: if it's not a part of the department's culture, and if there aren't professors who are interested in what you want to do (I notice that you qualify this a bit in your most recent post, but still that email you quoted earlier sounds inauspicious), then I don't suppose it would matter how long you stuck around. Whereas if you commit yourself early and show up ready to work hard, it seems totally doable to make a one-year MA work to your advantage.
You should weigh your advisor's opinions highly, since (s)he knows your work best.
Wow, it sounds like UIC is turning on the charm. They told you they have "no support" for what you want to do? I guess I admire the candor, but really . . .
I think the consensus here will likely be that the most important thing you can do to "climb the ladder" with your PhD applications is bust your ass to produce a good writing sample that engages an active area of scholarly interest in a clearly identified field. I really wouldn't worry about the rankings too much. They may matter insofar as they indicate available resources, which you need to be able to exploit. But it doesn't sound like UIC offers better opportunities for you in that regard. So I would suggest you eliminate that part of the equation.
I notice SPD . . . 9's comment above comes from a chem department. I don't know if this is a disciplinary difference, but my sense is that a good seminar paper supported by an engaged faculty is likely to do better in PhD applications for literary studies than would an excerpt (because you'd only be able to submit an excerpt) of a thesis cobbled together under the aegis of a department that doesn't give a shit.
Again, that's just my sense of it. I wouldn't base my decision on whether they welcome you to visit: it's easy to feel slighted by things that may not have any bearing on your ability to produce good scholarship, which is ultimately the most important thing. That said, besides the thesis question, you really don't say anything makes UIC sound like the better option.
You clearly state that both of these are unfunded offers. I wonder if you could feel out whether either program might have a guidance office that could help you look for external sources of funding. I think there are some folks on these boards who went that route and were able to minimize the amount of debt they had to take on to do an MA. If one school seems more ready to provide counsel about stuff like that, I would consider that a big plus.
I'm sure you've spent a lot of time already looking through the threads here on funded MAs. Such programs do exist. Your other option, if you ultimately don't feel satisfied with either of these choices, would be to reapply next year and really cover every program that offers money. I'm sure you've considered this already.
M&S, you should by all means explore your other options, as Swagato suggests. I merely meant to encourage you not to overlook a school because its letterhead is less fancy.
And I hear you on Hopkins: I really like that department too. But they are hemorrhaging senior faculty right now. Not a good sign for a department, of, what, twelve? You should probably be grateful you didn't have to weigh an offer from them. Would have been very hard to say no, but the immediate future doesn't look bright.