I can accept that perhaps the level of rigor at some of the LAC's may not be to the level of Caltech or MIT. Perhaps. However if that's true, now we're talking about something completely different - namely, just how valuable is that rigor?
Ah. And now, sakky, you and I can have a substantive discussion about something quite important. I've thought about this for a long time and I think I have an answer.
Consider a 4.3 (straight A+) undergraduate GPA from Caltech in physics, which has been done very occasionally. This is -- no doubt -- more valuable from a grad school point of view than any undergraduate GPA for a physics major anywhere in the country. Ask any physicist, and I guarantee it's not even a question. In fact, a 4.0 at Caltech is more impressive than a higher GPA at all but (maybe maybe maybe) a tiny group of schools.
Now, every year, there are about 100 high school graduates who can realistically hope for that, and somewhat more who think they have a shot at it. For them, the chance to demonstrate their quality against our very very demanding yardstick is invaluable. If they succeed, they have it made.
On the other hand, there is the possibility of not succeeding. To go to the extreme, a 2.5 from Caltech is worse than a good GPA from any number of places. And many of those people with the 2.5 from Caltech could have been academic superstars at other places. So there is a cost of having a very demanding yardstick for the benefit of the very best; that cost is that some decently good people will be worse off than they otherwise could have been. (Though many of them transfer and live like kings at places like Duke.)
So, what is the value of Caltech rigor? For some people, it has negative value; it makes their lives harder without a corresponding payoff of graduate school admission or whatever else. But for some other people -- the people realistically aiming for the 4.0+ -- the rigor has extreme value; it is a once in a lifetime chance to show one’s mettle against a yardstick everyone knows to be extremely challenging.
I note here the obvious point that changing the yardstick to be less demanding would eliminate the cost, but would also eliminate the benefit for the very best. Since most people could get much closer to the highest GPA’s, those numbers would lose their luster and the best would no longer have a chance to show how truly extraordinary they are.
So the short answer is that the people who are aiming solely at getting into the best grad school they can, and aren’t strong enough to climb up toward the high GPA’s, would better serve that goal by not going to Caltech.
On the other hand, people who can get to that level can’t do better than Caltech, because our chart has more discrimination power at the top than virtually everyone else’s chart. That makes top performance more meaningful.
That’s the unvarnished truth for you. Caltech is not a grad-school-admission-probability maximizing machine for everyone. It is for some people (the best) but not for others. If you think college ought to be a grad-school-admission-probability maximizing machine for everyone who is admitted, then on your metric Caltech fails. But we think aiming to be a grad-school-admission-probability maximizing machine for everyone would prevent us from achieving important goals like being a good yardstick for the very best. So we’re okay with failing on your metric.
And now to the point you brought up a while ago – what about those people we admit who end up getting the 2.5’s? Wouldn’t we have served them better to reject them? Not necessarily. Some people, as you mentioned, have goals other than grad school. Some would like a shot at studying here even if the results are poor. If they are qualified to study here, we want to give them that chance.
Nevertheless, I would be in support of including a note with our offer of admission that a certain class of students – those who care only about grad school and who are going to be below-average students at Caltech – should seriously reconsider their decision to study at Caltech. (We already do this in more subtle ways, but I’d come right out and say it.)
Those are my thoughts. You can’t please everyone, you can’t fulfill every goal. I’m all for being honest about what we can and can’t do, who we are and aren’t good for. But in the end, we’re proud of the goals we do fulfill, and I hope you can understand that.
I'm pretty sure Ben was only referring to sciences, and was not referring to Cooper Union. I can also assure you that alot of incoming graduate students take classes that are otherwise junior level at Caltech. As far as admissions spots, I think Caltech undergrads do just fine. Of the people I know that have graduated from Caltech who I am friends with and are mostly in my undergraduate house (which means much less than 1/7th of the undergrad population, spread mostly over two years of students) I know people who went the following grad schools.
5 at Harvard 2 physics, 3 in biology/med school
4 at Princeton 2 in Math 1 in physics, 1 encon
5 at Stanford 1 in Physics 1 in econ (He transferred from MIT's physics grad program) 2 in engineering 1 in geology
4 at MIT 1 in physics (different from the Stanford guy), 1 in Chemistry, 2 in engineering
2 at Cornell, 1 in math, 1 in physics
5 at Berkeley 1 in Physics, 3 in Chemistry, 1 in bio (not sure about 1 of them, they got in but may have gone to MIT or some other place)
1 at Chicago in Economics
1 at Rutgers in Physics
2 at Minnesota in Mathematics
1 at Penn State in Engineering (He was accepted at Stanford, MIT, and Caltech)
2 Caltech 1 in Physics 1 in engineering
1 Georgia Tech in Computer Science
1 Pennsylvania Biology
2 Columbia 1 physics 1 engineering
4 at Arizona for Astronomy
I live in the undergraduate house with the lowest GPA (tied I think). This might be a little biased becuase I am less likely to remember random state universities people go to. But the point is Caltech undergrads do just fine. I don't think every undergrad at Caltech should be able to go to Harvard for physics or something. If the rigor hurt their future, it was only a little bit.
This is a very interesting conversation. One thought I always have about the supposed strength of LACs in preparing people for graduate school is that it really reflects a certain weakness of LACs. Someone with an undergraduate degree in a hard science from, say, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, or (of course) Caltech can get some mighty lucrative, intellectually challenging jobs without ever going to graduate school. By contrast, many graduates of really good LACs, including some of those most noted for sending alumni on to graduate schools at the top echelon, can't touch those same jobs. The LAC graduates go to graduate school perhaps because they like to, because they enjoy the academic career track, but perhaps because they have to, because they still need another credential to get a suitably remunerative and satisfying job. So it shouldn't be surprising at all, to directly address Sakky's point, that Caltech's graduate school gets plenty of applicants (and thus some admittees) from LACs and not so many from larger undergraduate classes at MIT.
AWS+Reed+HMC+Pomona=31, better than any school other than Caltech, which must have some sort of home field advantage at 34. Also, I have trouble believing Swarthmore=1, so maybe I screweed up. I actually may have screwed up a number of things in the first 2 year by counting masters accidentally. I really wanted to get the list of
PhD recipients from someplace like MIT, but I couldn't find it and I think I should consider quitting this board after wasting all that time. I hope this is interesting to someone. If I do happen to find such data for another university, I will repeat this study. Then maybe I should quit College Confidential and go party or something.
For what its worth, I checked all the graduate students in physics at Princeton (not the ones under the first year heading because there were some repeats) and 10 out of 96 students were from Caltech. This did not include astronomy which is a separate department.
Having graduated a few decades ago, let me give some comments which might throw a different light on this issue.
First, some students are "damaged" by having gone to Tech in that they got poor grades or flunked out. Yet of the two cases I know well of people who dropped out because of low grades, both claim to have benefitted from the experience. Both transferred to good state schools and then dropped out again after getting straight A's for a year because they were bored. Both claim that the contacts they made at Tech enriched them for life. One of the two was literally enriched in that he survived and became wealthy after the dot com boom. Even in hindsight, he has always said that he would never have chosen to go elsewhere. I am always surprised by the number of people who are proud of having gone to Tech even when having to leave (Notice that writers Niven and Turtledove often mention in their bios that they transferred out of Tech).
Second, Caltech gives you a realistic look as an undergrad at what grad school in that area is like. In my case, it showed me that I didn't want to take a chance as a physics theorist and that I hated lab work, hence the switch to Econ. In some sense, I would have done "better" had I gone to MIT or H as an undergrad and done econ from the start (which were the schools I turned down to go to Caltech). But only at Caltech did I learn that at the end of the day, I probably would not have been happy with a physics career. In contrast, a very bright girl I know finished with an A+ at a strong state school in the hard sciences, got into MIT for grad school and then dropped out after learning she was a) unprepared for top level competition and b) she hated the lifestyle. This type of self-knowledge is immensely valuable.
Finally, it's not all about money and a career. I know that I often cursed my profs -- especially the bad ones -- everytime I got a C or when one or two Ivies turned me down for grad school. Yet my life is immensely richer for having gone to Caltech. The people I met and the contacts I made were invaluable. Hindsight is 20/20 but my stay at Caltech was memorable in a way my PhD program was not. Indeed I hated grad school though I liked my advisor and love economics. I am even at best indifferent to my grad school even though I did well there and have been moderately successful as a result. This feeling is not unusual among my classmates who struggled with Caltech yet look back with unusual fondness on the experience.
Furthermore, having now taught or visited at many top universities around the world and having spoken to many top graduates, I am surprised how unusual the sort of high-powered yet collegial experience at Caltech is. Many have spoken of how cutthroat or unpleasant or, for lack of a better word, how cold and uninvolving their undergrad exeperience was. A few years ago I interviewed two Phds who had coincidentally gone to the same Ivy and finished in the same year in Econ as undergrads yet who had never met nor heard of each other. I think that I recognize everyone who was in Tech at least on sight, and I knew or knew of every single major in my year at Caltech and most of all the others.
So there are real risks and costs, but Caltech -- from its rigor to its small size to its unique Honor system to its odd housing structure to its boot camp without destructive competition atmosphere -- is so unique an environment that it has value in and of itself. Many Techers have told me they would just as successful and perhaps more so if they had not gone there. Yet, though some are bitter, the majority appreciate that particular experience more, the older they get.
And that goes triple for those who get the brass ring and really do well at Tech and then elsewhere.
I apologize for the length of this post, but these issues have been on my mind for a long, long time. I hope those of you considering Caltech or suffering through Caltech will find these remarks useful.
One thought I always have about the supposed strength of LACs in preparing people for graduate school is that it really reflects a certain weakness of LACs. Someone with an undergraduate degree in a hard science from, say, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, or (of course) Caltech can get some mighty lucrative, intellectually challenging jobs without ever going to graduate school. By contrast, many graduates of really good LACs, including some of those most noted for sending alumni on to graduate schools at the top echelon, can't touch those same jobs. The LAC graduates go to graduate school perhaps because they like to, because they enjoy the academic career track, but perhaps because they have to, because they still need another credential to get a suitably remunerative and satisfying job. So it shouldn't be surprising at all, to directly address Sakky's point, that Caltech's graduate school gets plenty of applicants (and thus some admittees) from LACs and not so many from larger undergraduate classes at MIT.
I don't think I can agree with this reasoning, simply because LAC graduates seem to be doing quite well for themselves.
Take a gander at the average salary of Harvey Mudd graduates:
"Average salary upon graduation in 2003 was $53,900"
That compares VERY favorably with the average salary of $54904 for bachelor's degree graduates from MIT in 2003, and $54393 for Caltech BS graduates in 2003, and certainly compares extremely favorably with the salaries earned by engineers coming out of Berkeley in 2003.
So now you might say that Harvey Mudd is an unusual LAC because of its heavy tech focus, and so what we should be looking at are 'normal' LAC's like AWS. Fair enough. However, as I pointed out, most AWS graduates get degrees in the humanities or the social sciences. I would submit that the 'desperation' felt by the typical AWS graduate in having to go to graduate school is no more serious than somebody who graduated from the Ivy League with a humanities/social science degree. I don't think that AWS is on the same plane as a Harvard or a Yale as far as the quality and selectivity of the student body is concerned, so I think a comparison between Harvard and Williams is unfair (as not too many people are going to turn down Harvard for Williams), but I do think a comparison between AWS and Brown or Dartmouth is entirely fair. I would submit that a guy with an English degree from Williams is no more "desperate" to get into graduate school than a guy with an English degree from Dartmouth.
And furthermore, like I pointed out, looks like the graduates from elite LAC's are at least as successful in getting into Caltech graduate school than are the graduates of Dartmouth or Brown, despite the fact that Dartmouth and Brown are not only significantly bigger, they also have engineering programs . Not great engineering programs, but at least they have them. Only a few of the elite LAC's have engineering programs - Mudd of course, Swarthmore, and a few others, and that's about it.
Hence, the point is, if the LAC's success in getting people into graduate school is really a product of 'desperation', I don't think it's any worse than what is happening at comparable schools. I'm a realist, and I recognize that somebody who gets admitted to a superelite tier school like Harvard, Princeton, or MIT is probably going to choose it over a school like Swarthmore. However, what if you can't get into the superelite tier? What if your choice is between a lower Ivy and an elite LAC? I am arguing that in that situation, an elite LAC is a perfectly reasonable choice.
George, yeah, I'm afraid some of the data you tabulated is a bit off. For example, in 2004, there was one guy from Mudd, and in 2005, there were 2 guys from Mudd. And you did occassionally count some master's degrees.
But anyway, quibbling about a few figures here and there is not the point. The point I'm making is that the LAC's seem to be doing pretty well for themselves, given their small size and (usually) their non-tech focus.
Like I said before, I think you can have both rigor and proper safety nets to allow those people who come to Caltech and then realize that they can't cut it the maximum flexibility to transfer out with minimal loss or otherwise preserve their academic qualifications.
Just brainstorming quickly, I don't particularly see what is the point of giving out any final grades below a certain level, say, a C. What I mean by that is that if a person deserves to get a final course grade below a C, then that person should simply be given no grade at all, and that course will just not count or appear anywhere on his transcript, unless the student specifically petitions that he wants it to count (whereupon the grade will then appear). If the guy does not perform up to snuff, then simply not being given credit for passing the course should be punishment enough. I don't see any point in tagging that guy's record with a bad grade.
Hence, the point is, you can still preserve the ability to distinguish the superstars with difficult-to-get top grades, but not unduly persecute the weaker students. Those weaker students will quickly figure out that they're not good enough to graduate from Caltech and so will then be able to try to transfer out of Caltech with a better-looking transcript. You might say that that Caltech transcript they are presenting is somewhat of a "pseudo-transcript" because it won't show any bad grades, but so what? If the guy is looking to transfer out of Caltech, what's the harm in giving him a pseudo-transcript? He's not going to get a Caltech degree, so Caltech has already proven its point. I don't see anything to be gained from hounding the guy even further.
The point is, I don't see rigor as necessarily requiring the threat of bad grades. Yes - let the superstars get the brass ring. But on the other hand, see if you can do something for the guys who are doing badly.
Ben and Sakky.. i don't get one thing. See whatever a persons GPA might say but the people admitting students at various graduate schools should be aware of the rigor of schools like caltech in general and know how to differentiate between a CIT/MIT guy and others. + u people say that even for undergrad one's GPA is not that matters but its the rank and relative performance so why is that policy not followed for grad schools (or is it that at CIT/MIT some people get whooping 4's and some lowly 2's... I mean there is no range of gpa between everyone is that the case)
oh and ben do you people give a good consideration to community service for undergrad admission
It depends. In most cases, the answer is no, because most of the community service that people do is perfunctory (intended to fulfill a duty, because people think it looks good on a college application). Since everybody thinks this, very many people have community service, which means that it does not help distinguish between applicants.
Nevertheless, some people obviously do community service because they care about it a lot; they start clubs, write extremely compelling essays about it, run regional efforts, and the like. So if your passion really is community service, your application will show it and it will count in your favor. If it's the few hundred hours that everybody does because they think it looks good, it means nothing. (This is, as far as I can tell, the point of view at all of the elite colleges.)
So, my advice is, follow your passion. A lot of time spent doing science activities will almost certainly benefit your chances more than a lot of hours doing community service.