Why Caltech Is in a Class by Itself

Caltech005.jpgOlder 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
caltech%203.bmpBut 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.
Caltech001.jpgWhat 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

    Russell K. Nieli is a Senior Preceptor in Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and a Lecturer in Princeton's Politics Department. He is the author of "Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide."

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34 thoughts on “Why Caltech Is in a Class by Itself

  1. Everyone wants to speak about diversity in colleges, but what about sports? No one’s complaining that Blacks are “OverRePrESeNtED” in NFL? Hypocritical

  2. Its much easier for a female undergrad to get into cal tech than a male, the author leaves this out. This is a significant concession to meritocracy.

    1. Caltech does not give preference to women. The women who apply to Caltech are a special group. A greater proportion of women who apply are accepted than men who apply, because women who apply to Caltech need to have the skills, interest, and confidence to a greater extent than men. MIT, on the other hand, states that it does give preference to women.

      1. Does Caltech now state that it does not give preference to women? It’s M/F enrollment percentages are about the same as MIT’s in the class of 2021, and given the likely similarity in the applicant pools, I would infer that a similar level of preference for women exists at the two institutions.

        I don’t see why Caltech female applicants, while unusual among women, would be more unusual or significantly different than MIT applicants. Most of them probably also applied to MIT!

  3. The reason for Caltech not having many Alumni’s kids to come back to caltech is much simpler. Most alumni don’t want their kids to come to this school and endure what they endured. Same as why many caltech alumni not seeking to faculty job at Caltech.

  4. In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be pointed out the somewhat checkered history of Caltech atheletics. First, faculty and staff are allowed to play on the football team (there was a professor playing in my day, and I think in the 90’s, there was a year that they won several games because of a talented running back from the groundskeeping staff). Second, they used to bring in ringers (from a local high school) to serve as cheerleaders (in the days when there were many fewer women). Third, a few years ago, the basketball team had a precious win vacated by the NCAA, who famously ruled some student-athletes academically ineligible.

  5. I also think that there should be no avantage for underrepresented minorities, I can assure you that test scores doesn’t prove excellence in every part of the world. Americans are prepared for college admissions because they are educated in base of the system. They prepare for the SAT since they are juniors. They have a vast diversity of ECs in any area they like.

    However, not every country receives this type of education. In my country, for example, there’s no such thing as APs. Our curriculum is the same for everyone, but classes have the same level. This means that in senior year, almost every class is an AP. I know extremely intelligent people that would do perfectly fine in Caltech that get SAT scores around 1800. There is a barrier that I can’t explain, at least for Latin American students, when taking the SAT. We aren’t prepared for this. An American 1800 doesn’t have the same value as an Latin american 1800. I have a friend who studied one month before for the SAT, and scored 300 points higher that the American average. That girl is extremely intelligent. In our country’s top engineering university she was the score number 30 (here each university gives a test), although she had studied almost nothing. However, her SAT score is 1860. She is so freaking smart, but her score misrepresents her.

    No one should receive advantage. However, the context of a person should be considered, because many outstanding people seem average in the American system. It’s naive to think that most of the intelligent population are Asians and Caucasians. I bet that there are as many smart Hispanic and Afro Americans, they just have different ways to prove they are remarkable.

    1. I agree with the first part of your assessment. It’s hard even for native English speakers to understand what the test is asking for and knowing when a question is a trick question, etc. Unfortunately, the optimism you see in minorities is not really the case. It’s because their cultures do not value education like upper class Caucasians and Asians. It’s a culture problem, not a race problem. There are exceptions. The minorities, specifically the African Americans at my private school were as smart or smarter than the Caucasians because their culture (they came from immigrant families) valued education.

  6. Not lowering standards for legacies and athletes is a great and courageous move, but no university should be patting itself on the back for abandoning affirmative action—especially not when its black population is less than 1%. That is what we call socially irresponsible behavior.

    1. Handouts hinder, not help. When I’m at the gym, most of the people there are in much better shape than I am. However, I’m not going to ask them to lower their standards. I’m just going to work out smarter and inch my way towards the goal. That’s the kind of approach we have to make with minorities.

      1. You show an astonishing level of ignorance regarding the causes of minority under representation in elite institutions. It has little to do with ” work out smarter and inch my way towards the goal”.

    2. Do NBA choose its players based on diversity? If your purpose is to win the game, you will choose the best type of teammates to achieve this goal, not short enough layers with potential. Caltech is trying to earn its reputation by diversity like ivies, it is the top science institution in the world, they should recruit the best students they can get.

      Will NBA basketball teams reserve spots for Asians because of diversity?

  7. The low alumni donation rate isn’t entirely based on lack of legacy admissions – many students loved their time at Caltech, and would be interested in donating regardless. However, the house system is one of the most important things to most students, and they would often rather donate directly to their house than to the institute itself (especially in recent years, where the administration has shown itself to be strongly against the house culture, taking measures which neither current students nor alumni approve of), resulting in the aforementioned lower donation rate.
    To clarify, I agree with most if not all of the points mentioned in the article; I just wanted to elaborate on alternate reasoning of a specific item.

  8. “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” I really doubt this; i.e. in all the world that this practice hasn’t found some traction…Please.

  9. CalTech used to have a football team. They were usually routed by small college opponents and lost most of their games. But, they did play their home games in the Rose Bowl. They had a big time college football coach Bert laBrucherie(?) who at one time coached at UCLA.

  10. For those of you complaining about the “What this means is that at Caltech, there are no dumb jocks, dumb legacies, or dumb affirmative action students.” line, you should turn off your automatic-offense mechanism and read the line again. He did not say “All jocks, legacies, and affirmative action students are dumb,” he said (paraphrased for accuracy) “The jocks, legacies, and affirmative action students at Caltech are held to the same academic standards as every other student, and therefore aren’t ‘dumb’.”
    Caltech has a sports program, admits students whose parents are alumni, and attempts to improve the representation of minorities (as evidenced by the professor’s quote that was given). They just don’t favor those kinds of students over their more academically accomplished peers. That’s the only accurate conclusion you can draw from that “offensive” line about jocks, legacies, and affirmative action.

    1. They don’t discriminate. They just want to admit the best suitable students with STEM passions and ready to sacrifice their social and free time , focusing on their work . Not all smart students are interested in STEM. Not all smart STEM students can handle their workload. One valedictorian in one high school might not be top in another competitive high school. This is all about best fit, otherwise many students will be burned out and leave.

  11. Diversity of students attending and admitted at Caltech most likely are not same. Many minorities admitted there may be choosing different schools. Until all data are openly available, conclusion drawn from data of students attending Caltech is not informative.

    1. I am a parent of a current student, There are many talented students from all races, but I have to say, talents, intelligence or hard- work are not enough for Caltech. Caltech might be one of the very few colleges that students need to dedicate 100% in their 4 years for college ( maybe longer) My kid finished all highest AP classes in sophomore years with all straight As, and taking more advanced classes in junior and senior years, getting all perfect test scores without test prep, winning a couple STEM competitions, play NCAA Div 3 sports, but still not a top student in Caltech. This is why my kid choose to go to Caltech instead of other top 10 ten schools.

      ”If you walk in to a room where you are the smartest, you are obviously in the wrong place.”

      This is why Caltech is in the class of its own. So are students! Need strong mental and physical conditions.

  12. This is possibly the most naive look on college admissions I’ve ever read. “What this means is that at Caltech, there are no dumb jocks, dumb legacies, or dumb affirmative action students.” How offensive to assume all minorities, jocks, and legacies are idiots, simply because the admissions committee reviewed factors other than test scores. These groups offer a rich diversity to a school. I commend CalTech on taking a strictly academic approach in their admissions, but that doesn’t mean they have as rich and intriguing student body as schools that look past test scores.

    1. As a graduate, I can tell you Caltech has a different type of diversity much more valuable than dumb jocks or people of color. It attracts elite students and faculty from all over the world.

  13. While I agree that sports are not the main function of a university, a football scholarship is about the most demanding way to finance a higher education. In season there are at least two hours of practice from which one usually comes home with ones ears ringing. There are also daily meetings at the crack of dawn and travel time to away games. In the off season there is daily weight training and occasional meetings. In the spring there are 20 days of full contact football practice with still more meetings. The daily schedule of a Division I player is completely filled.
    It is a fallacy to say that sports are anti-meritocratic. It is simply a different type of merit that takes into account the whole individual and not just what happens in the classroom.

  14. Nice! It is so exhausting to seek good high quality info on the internet as we speak from knowledgeable sources, it is all wannabe’s and reused content with only a few exceptions. I hope you retain up the good work and I can be again to read more of your posts in the future!

  15. [i]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.[/i]
    Hmm. I’m not sure which universe our author is living in, but Cal Tech is most certainly recognized for its academic excellence – especially amongst academics themselves. Forgive me for not paying much attention to ‘rankings’ of colleges and universities, but I know for a fact that Cal Tech was rated the top American university (yes, above both MIT and Hahvahd) at some point in the early oughts (2000-2005). Has this changed?

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