Tuesday, we toured MIT, a school I’ve always been impressed by, both for the reputed intensity of its students and the research that comes out of MIT.
Before the tour we attended an information session in room 35-225. At MIT, everything is given a number, rather than a name (majors, courses, and buildings)—it is part of how MIT creates a culture of insiders and outsiders. So 35-255 means room 255 in building 35 (we started in the Admissions office, better known as 10-100). Room 35-255 turned out to be a very run-down lecture hall with paint peeling off the ceiling, and an impressive tangle of power cords and data cables hanging off the back of the podium (including parts that were clearly intended to be fastened to a solid surface, not hanging by a wire). The lecture hall has a very steep rake, so that everyone can see over the person in front of them, but even from the second row, the speaker looked like he was a long way away, at the bottom of a deep well. There was a class scheduled in the room right after our information session, so I know that this wasn’t a mothballed room pulled into service for information sessions, but an active classroom.
One thing that MIT did that no other college has done so far was to provide a customized welcome letter for my son, providing information about the three subjects that he had expressed the most interest in when he signed up for the info session. It was a simple template-based letter, just putting in three paragraphs from the form he filled out, but no other campus has shown that level of care in the recruiting. This gesture almost made up for the very rundown teaching facilities—but the admissions process doesn’t last long, and the teaching facilities have to be lived with for 4 years.
Another handout they gave us was a “Facts for Freshmen” data sheet, and this one undid the good impression of the customized welcome letter. They used a number of tricks to disguise and distort data:
- putting 4,384 undergraduate students in a huge font and 6,510 graduate students in a tiny font to make it look like the undergraduates dominate the graduates.
- having the “area” mistake, where triangles were used to show percentages of students from each geographic area, but the heights of the triangles were proportional to the percentage, rather than the areas being proportional to percentage. I guess their graphic designer never read any of Tufte’s books. Oh, wait—Tufte is from Yale, and maybe people from MIT don’t read stuff from Yale.
- total financial aid is reported as $31,232 per year, but they don’t say on this sheet that loans are included in that figure. If you take the total scholarships ($8.9M) and divide by the number of students (4,384), you get an average scholarship of $20k—a lot less than the $31k they misleadingly report.
The MIT information session was reasonably informative, though the speaker (an admissions officer) spent far too much time talking about athletics at MIT. One positive point was the amount of time he talked about the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), which students can participate in from the beginning of their MIT careers. About 85% of students participate and most are paid for their research work (it wasn’t clear whether students coming up with their own projects got paid, or only those working on funded research for faculty). A lot of really cool research is done at MIT, and being part of one of the better projects may be a wonderful experience. There is certainly a strong expectation that students will do research and hands-on projects, and not just book learning, matching what is claimed in the MIT motto “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hand).
At the end of the session I asked one rather pointed, even rude, question: “I’ve heard a lot about how stressful MIT can be—how does the suicide rate compare with other selective colleges?” I had a personal reason for concern about this—my best friend from high school committed suicide at MIT in the spring of his sophomore year. I also have seen some figures suggesting that MIT had a much higher suicide rate than other schools, though those are old figures for 1990–2001, and may no longer be representative. The answer I got was not very reassuring—they have a lot of support mechanisms in place (though the only ones mentioned were studying together and support services that could be called) and their rate is not really higher than comparable institutions (a claim I’ve not been able to justify or refute online, though what little I’ve been able to find does suggest that the rate has dropped to a more normal 7/100,000/year). I would have been more reassured if they had said “we had a problem in 2000 and 2001, and took a lot of steps to address it—since then our rate has been x, comparable to a rate of y at other selective schools”. They are still saying to the press that male engineering students are more likely to commit suicide than other students (ref), which is not reassuring to the parent of a male student likely to be studying engineering.
Our MIT tour guide was reasonably well-informed and audible, giving us a few factoids we did not previously know (how much the copper roof of Kresge Auditorium weighs and how the car-on-the-roof hack was managed), but we spent far too much time in the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center talking about athletics. He had some interesting information about the buildings, including the incompetent design of the Green Building by I.M. Pei. He talked about the good acoustics of the Chapel, but not the abysmal acoustics of the Kresge Auditorium. He did not, however, talk much about academics at MIT, other than a couple of pro forma speeches about the gen-ed requirements, and a fairly good description of UROP research opportunities.
I looked at the CS requirements for the 6-3 program and combined gen-ed/CS requirements, and it looks like a fairly rigid, formulaic program, with very few electives until senior year (choice of 3 core courses—out of the 3 offered, choice of 3 header courses—out of the 3 offered, and so forth). The MIT program seems to be guaranteeing quality by making sure that everyone has taken the same courses and not missed anything, with just a little customization in the senior year—rather the opposite of Brown University’s philosophy of every student creating their own unique path.
The population density of MIT seemed reasonable when the sun was shining, but when it started sprinkling, everyone headed inside and the corridors became packed with students and faculty trying to get from one building to another without going outside. It was like the mad scramble to get from one class to another in a big mid-western high school, but with clear rules (explained to us clueless tourists many times) about staying to the right in all corridors. My son has not experienced crowded corridors much before (most California classroom doors open directly to the outside), so the little sprinkle of rain we got today was good for giving him a more representative view of MIT.
At lunch in the CS building (32G), I noticed that a lot of people were eating in groups, but a lot of people were sitting alone, and that no one approached them, even when there were no empty tables left. It might be hard for a shy person to make friends at MIT, given the general unwillingness to disturb anyone who seemed to be by themselves.
Overall, my son had a reasonably favorable impression of MIT, putting it in an equivalence class with CMU and UCB. All three are research powerhouses that are somewhat dominated by the grad programs. Personally, I thought that of the three, MIT did the most to include undergrads in research and UCB did the least, but that the UCB campus was the nicest environment and MIT the least pleasant. He put all three lower on his list than Harvey Mudd, Stanford, and Brown, though he has not yet articulated exactly why he ranks the schools the way he does.