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Why Caltech Is in a Class by Itself

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By Russell K. Nieli, December 9, 2010, mindingthecampus.com

Older readers know how the leading American universities, which had risen to world-class status by the 1930s and 1940s, were upended by the traumatic campus events of the late 1960s and their aftermath. Riots and boycotts by student radicals, the decline in core curriculum requirements, the loss of nerve by university presidents and administrators, galloping grade inflation, together with the influence on research and learning of such radical campus ideological fads as Marxism, deconstructionism, and radical feminism all contributed to the declining quality of America's best institutions from what they had been in the middle years of the 20th century.

Added to these 60s-era trends (some of which have mercifully waned) came two further developments which are still very much with us today and which moved the elite universities further away from the pursuit of excellence and merit which was their greatest achievement after the Second World War: the competitive sports craze and the affirmative action crusade. To these two anti-meritocratic developments, we might add a third: the policy of granting huge admissions boosts to the sons and daughters of alumni -- a practice found almost nowhere else in the world and outside America would be likened to bribery or shady political payoffs.

Minding the Campus readers probably need little instruction on the corrupting effects of the racial balancing game played by almost all our elite universities. The typical African- American and Latino student who gets admitted to the most elite colleges and universities in the U.S. (median admit) has a substantially lower achievement record in terms of high school grades and SAT scores, not only than his white and Asian classmates, but even those white and Asian students at the middle-level of his institution's pool of rejected applicants. The academic achievement gap between the admitted white and Asian students and those designated as "underrepresented minorities" is often huge, in statistical terms often exceeding a full standard deviation (equivalent to a 600 vs. a 700 on each of the sections of the SAT exam).

The Corruption of College Sports

But what is probably much less known to readers of this website is the corrupting effect of the enormous expansion in athletic recruitment and the willingness of even the most academically selective of institutions in America to compromise their academic standards for recruited athletes to a degree equal to (or greater than) that in the case of favored minorities. For example, recruited athletes have compromised more than 15 percent of Princeton's incoming freshmen class, and as James Shulman and William Bowen show in their outstanding statistical study, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values Princeton is hardly unique in its scramble to assemble competitive sports teams at the expense of academic standards. The surge in the number of recruited athletes in recent years has been spurred by three factors: 1) the huge expansion in the number of men's varsity sports teams beyond the traditional football, basketball, track, and baseball; 2) the requirement in Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 that females not be discriminated against in college sports -- a requirement often interpreted to mean that if there is a male lacrosse, soccer, water polo, volleyball, cross-country, or fencing team there must be a female equivalent as well; and 3) the tendency for coaches and college admissions officers to narrow the gap, or obliterate the distinction entirely, between major and minor sports such that academic standards are compromised just as much for the recruited minor-sport athletes as for those in the major sports.

The combination of these three factors has led to a recruited-athlete population on many campuses today that is much larger (in both absolute and relative terms) than its counterpart 40 or 50 years ago and much more removed in terms of academic talent from the rest of the campus. This latter development has given rise to the stereotype of the "dumb jock" -- a stereotype which rarely existed on college campuses in the first half of the 20th century. (Data reported in Shulman and Bowen's book indicate that college athletes from Princeton's class of 1951 actually performed better in terms of their final class ranking than Princeton's non-athlete population.) When one adds to the 15 percent of recruited athletes at many elite institutions, the equally large number of affirmative action admits, and throws in another 5-15 percent of legacy students, one gets a sense of the substantial proportion of matriculants at these institutions who have been admitted under compromised academic standards. Many of the athletic recruits and affirmative action students at the most academically selective institutions are less academically accomplished and less academically gifted than the better students at even the middle-level state universities. (Legacy admits, though given significant preference over non-legacies, are usually held to a somewhat higher academic standard than that of recruited athletes or affirmative action admits, unless their parents are big-bucks donors, in which case they receive substantially greater indulgence.)

Toward a Pure Meritocracy

Of the top two dozen or so elite universities in America only one has managed both to avoid the craziness of the post-60s intellectual fads, and to establish something pretty close to a pure meritocracy -- California Institute of Technology, which has not received the general recognition among academics that it clearly deserves.

The statistics on Caltech's students and faculty are simply spellbinding. An entering Caltech freshman last year who received a 770 on the math SAT would be exceeded in this area by three-quarters of his fellow entering freshmen. Many Caltech freshmen got a perfect 800 on their math SAT, while a near-perfect 1560 combination score placed an incoming freshmen at only the 75th percentile of his entering classmates. A combined SAT score of 1470 (the 99th percentile by national standards) placed an entering Caltech freshman at only the 25th percentile among his fellow students. (At Harvard and Princeton, by contrast, the 25th percentile is reached by a score of only 1380). All recent Caltech undergraduates have scored 700 or above on the math SAT, and far from being a bunch of inarticulate science and math geeks, the vast majority have scored over 700 on the English verbal SAT as well. Most Caltech matriculants have also taken numerous Advanced Placement courses in high school, and attained perfect scores on their AP exams. In short, Caltech is interested in enrolling only the academically most accomplished and advanced students, who have a genuine passion for the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), and virtually all of its entering students have achieved at the 98th or 99th percentile in terms of their scores on competitive national exams.

What this means is that at Caltech, there are no dumb jocks, dumb legacies, or dumb affirmative action students. It is clear from its published statistics that the non-academic criteria that preoccupy admissions committees at all other elite universities count for little at this beacon of pure meritocracy. Perhaps the most striking difference from all other elite universities -- including institutions like MIT and the University of Chicago which forgo athletic recruitment -- is Caltech's complete indifference to racial balancing. In a state and a region of the country with the largest Hispanic population, Caltech's entering freshmen class in 2008 was less than 6 percent Hispanic (13 out of 236). The unwillingness to lower standards for a larger black representation is even more striking -- less than 1 percent (2/236) of Caltech's 2008 entering freshmen were listed as "non-Hispanic black". This "underrepresentation" of blacks and Hispanics, of course, was more than made up for by the huge "overrepresentation" of Asians. Only 4 percent of the U.S. population, Asians made up a whopping 40 percent of the incoming freshmen class in 2008, a slightly larger proportion than the 39 percent figure for whites. Applicants to Caltech are clearly seen as representing only themselves and their own individual merit and achievement, not their race or their ethnic group. As a professor at Caltech who has taught there for many years explained to me in an email, "We try, like our competitors, very, very hard to find, recruit, and nurture underrepresented minorities but we won't bend our standards."

Just as the Olympic committee and the elite sports teams in America care nothing about one's academic achievement when deciding who makes the team, so Caltech cares little about athletic ability when choosing its student body. Its indifference to athletic performance is well reflected by the fact that its men's basketball team in recent years had a 207-game losing streak, its women's basketball team had a 50-game losing streak, and men's soccer team lost 201 games in a row.

There really exists no "class such as 'dumb jocks'" at Caltech as on some other campuses, a recent graduate wrote in an email. "I was on the Caltech basketball team -- so if there were dumb jocks I would know!... The basketball team was just as talented in academics as the rest of the school. "He went on to say that the admissions committee probably does take into consideration athletic background of Caltech applicants, particularly if an existing sports team is so poor that it loses by too many points, but he said that the "large pool of indistinguishably well-qualified candidates" makes it possible for Caltech to give a small boost to a needed athletic recruit without compromising its off-the-charts academic standards.

No Legacies---the Third Strike

Caltech's third strike in favor of meritocracy involves its indifference to legacy status. Indeed, throughout its history Caltech has never been interested in reaching out in any special way to alumni children, and according to one estimate, less than 2 percent of its current undergraduate students have a parent who attended the university. This compares with many other elite private colleges and universities where legacy students comprise as much as 10-15 percent of each entering class (at Notre Dame the figure is close to one-quarter).

If you can't meet the stellar performance requirements and show an intense love for science and mathematics, Caltech isn't interested in you and will not lower its standards. When you apply to Caltech the admissions committee is interested only in your intellectual merit and passion for learning. It has little or no interest in your family heritage, your race, or your skill in slapping around a hockey puck. (Its refusal to grant substantial legacy preferences may account for Caltech's relatively low alumni giving rate compared to the top Ivies, but this hasn't prevented the university from getting generous funding from various governmental, corporate, and wealthy donor sources. Indeed, according to recent U.S. News and World Report ratings, in terms of its general, per-student financial resource picture, Caltech stands ahead of all the Ivies.)

Caltech's single-minded focus on academic excellence in its admission's policies is no doubt partially due to the fact that its faculty, rather than its professional administrators, determines its admissions standards. Its uncompromising pursuit of talent and of those with a passion for scientific discovery is surely the main reason why such a small institution -- only one fifth the size of institutions like MIT and Princeton in term of its student body and faculty -- manages to produce world-class scientists and researchers in quality and number sufficient to gain for the university world-class standing. Caltech routinely ranks among the top half dozen or so American universities in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings (in 2000 it actually topped the chart as number 1 in the USNWR's "Best National Universities" competition), and internationally Caltech was ranked number 2 in the world in 2010 in the influential U.K.-based Times Higher Education World University Rankings, only slightly behind in points the number 1 ranked Harvard.

The fact that 17 of its student alumni and 14 of its faculty have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, and six of its alumni have won the prestigious Turing Award in computer science, surely says something about the institution and what it stands for. Despite its small size, Caltech was chosen by NASA to be the center for its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and in the past was a major venue for visiting scholars of the rank of Heisenberg, Einstein, Lorentz, and Bohr. In more recent times its undergraduate alumni have gone on to be founders or co-founders of such leading-edge American companies as Intel, TRW, Compaq, and Exploratorium.

Because of its small size and focus on the STEM subjects, many may conclude that Caltech's meritocratic formula is not transferable to larger, more diverse universities. And if this means that academic merit and achievement are easier to assess in the science and technology fields than in the social sciences and humanities, there is surely some truth to that. But however difficult it may be to determine, every academic field has its excellence, and the difficulty of precisely measuring excellence in a given field is surely no reason to avoid pursuing it as a goal.

The elite universities today, unlike their great German counterparts in the 19th century, are clearly not pursuing that excellence with the single-minded focus and commitment which it deserves. When universities enroll large numbers of students off of coaches' lists, institute de facto racial and ethnic admissions quotas, and give substantial preferences to students based on the colleges their parents attended, they clearly fall short of the meritocratic ideal. But that ideal is surely worth pursuing. Its survival in an exemplary form on a 124-acre campus in Pasadena, California, should be an inspiration to all the best universities and colleges in America, large or small. Caltech has shown to the rest of the world what can be achieved when an elite institution -- even a very small one -- focuses exclusively upon talent, creativity, and uncompromising academic standards. What a shame that our other elite institutions do not follow a similar path. 

Russell K. Nieli is a Senior Preceptor in the Executive Precept Program of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and a Lecturer in Princeton's Politics Department. His new book, Wounds that Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide, will be published next year by Encounter Books.


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