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2014 September 1

Where PhDs get their Bachelors’ degrees

Last year I wrote about a study that looked at where CS PhD students got their bachelors’ degrees. Now Reed College has extended that question to other fields as well: Doctoral Degree Productivity.  Their point was to show how high Reed ranked on the standard they chose: the number of students who went on to get PhDs divided by the number of students getting bachelor’s degrees.  I quote the tables and accompanying text below, but I take no credit or blame for the data—this is directly from Reed’s site:

Undergraduate Origins of Doctoral Degrees

Percentage ranking of doctorates, by academic field, conferred upon graduates of listed institutions.

Rank All Disciplines Science and Math Social Sciences Humanities and Arts
1 Calif. Inst. of Tech. Calif. Inst. of Tech. Swarthmore New England Conserv. of Music
2 Harvey Mudd Harvey Mudd Grinnell Curtis Institute of Music
3 Swarthmore Reed Reed Juilliard
4 Reed MIT Bryn Mawr Cleveland Inst. of Music
5 Carleton NM Institute Mining & Tech. Spelman St. John’s College
6 MIT Carleton Oberlin Reed
7 Grinnell Wabash Wesleyan Hellenic College-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Sch. of Theology
8 Princeton Rice St. Joseph Seminary Swarthmore
9 Harvard Univ. of Chicago Harvard Oberlin
10 Oberlin Grinnell Pomona Amherst

Percentage Ranking by Specific Fields of Study

Rank Life Sciences Physical Sciences Psychology Other Social Sciences* Humanities
1 Calif. Inst. of Tech. Calif. Inst. of Tech. Univ. Puerto Rico – Aguadilla Swarthmore St. John’s, MD
2 Reed Harvey Mudd Wellesley Reed Reed
3 Swarthmore Reed Vassar Harvard Amherst
4 Carleton MIT Hendrix Grinnell Swarthmore
5 Grinnell NM Institute Mining/Tech. Pontifical Coll. Josephinum Univ. of Chicago Carleton
6 Harvey Mudd Carleton Grinnell Bryn Mawr Yale
7 Univ. of Chicago Wabash Swarthmore Thomas More College of Lib. Arts Thomas More College of Lib. Arts
8 Haverford Rice Barnard Oberlin Bryn Mawr
9 MIT Univ. of Chicago St. Joseph Seminary Coll. Bard College at Simon’s Rock St. John’s, NM
10 Earlham Grinnell Pomona Wesleyan Wesleyan
11 Harvard Haverford Reed Amherst Princeton
12 Cornell Univ. Swarthmore Wesleyan Pomona Bard College at Simon’s Rock

*Does not include psychology, education, or communications and librarianship.

Source: National Science Foundation and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The listing shows the top institutions in the nation ranked by estimated percentage of graduates who went on to earn a doctoral degree in selected disciplines between 2001-2010.

All the schools listed are private schools except Univ. Puerto Rico—Aguadilla and NM Institute Mining/Tech., but seeing dominance by expensive private schools is not very surprising—grad school is expensive, and students who can afford expensive private schools are more likely to be able to afford expensive grad school and are less likely to need to work immediately after getting their B.S. or B.A. A PhD is not a working-class degree—it is prepares one for only a small number of jobs, mainly in academia or national labs, so for many it is just an elite status symbol.  What is more surprising is how poorly the Ivy League schools do on this list—perhaps those who get their elite status conferred by their bachelor’s institution see no need to continue on to get higher degrees.

Reed does not report numbers directly comparable with the ones in the Computing Research Association report, which reports only on computer science PhDs, where

Only one institution (MIT) had an annual average production of 15 or more undergraduates.   Three other institutions (Berkeley, CMU, and Cornell) had an average production of more than 10 but less than 15.  Together, these four baccalaureate institutions accounted for over 10% of all Ph.D.’s awarded to domestic students.   The next 10% of all Ph.D.’s in that period came from only eight other baccalaureate institutions (Harvard, Brigham Young, Stanford, UT Austin, UIUC, Princeton, University of Michigan, and UCLA). 

Note that five of the top producers of bachelor’s in CS who went on to get PhDs were public schools.  The CRA does not report PhD/BS numbers for individual institutions, probably because the numbers are too small to be meaningful for most colleges—you have to aggregate either across many colleges or across many fields before the denominators are big enough to avoid just reporting noise.  Reed did the aggregating across fields, while the CRA report aggregated across colleges, finding that research universities sent about 2.5% of their CS graduates on to get PhDs, 4-year colleges about 0.9% and masters-granting institutions about 0.6%.  They did have one finding that supports Reed’s analysis:

The top 25 liberal arts colleges (using the U.S. News and World Reports ranking) collectively enroll slightly less than 50,000 students per year in all majors and were the origins of 190 Ph.D. degrees between 2000 and 2010, collectively ranking ahead of any single research university.

Reed’s findings are also consistent with the NSF report that put the “Oberlin 50” colleges highest at over 5% of their science and engineering graduates going on to get PhDs, compared to about 3% for research universities.  The NSF report supports somewhat the analysis that socio-economic status is important in determining who goes on to grad school—private research universities match the Oberlin 50, but public research universities have only about half as large a fraction of their graduates go on to grad school.

I found out about this site from The Colleges Where PhD’s Get Their Start, which has a copy of the tables that probably came from an earlier, buggy  version of the site, because Lynn O’Shaughnessy wrote

I bet most families assume that attending a public flagship university or a nationally known private research university is the best ticket to graduate school. If you look at the following lists of the most successful PhD feeder schools for different majors, you will see a somewhat different story. Not a single public university makes any of the lists. The entire Cal State system, however, is considered the No. 1 producer of humanities PhD’s.

I could believe that the Cal State system had the largest raw numbers of students going on to get PhDs in humanities, as they are a huge 4-year college, enrolling about 438,000 students [http://www.calstate.edu/as/cyr/cyr13-14/table01.shtml], with about 76,000 bachelor’s degrees per year [http://www.calstate.edu/PA/2013Facts/degrees.shtml]. Are there any other colleges in the US graduating so many BS or BA students per year? But the fact remains that Cal State is not the flagship university of California, and the University of California probably has a much higher percentage of its alumni go on to get PhDs.

In fact, one of the big problems with these lists is the question of scale—most of the colleges that come up high on Reed’s lists (which means high on NSF’s lists) do so by having very small denominators—they don’t graduate many students, though a high percentage of those go on to get PhDs.  In terms of raw numbers of students who go on to get PhDs, the public research universities produce many more than the private research universities, and the liberal arts schools are just a drop in the bucket. Of the top 25 schools in terms of raw numbers who go on to get PhDs in science and engineering, 19 are public research universities and 6 are private research universities—of the top 50 only 17 are private research universities.

When you are looking for a cohort of similarly minded students, you get slightly higher enrichment at some very selective private schools, but there are actually more peers at a large public research university—if you can find them.

2014 March 11

Why few women in engineering?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:33
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The Washington Post recently published an opinion piece by Catherine Rampell with a somewhat unusual, but plausible explanation why some fields end up with more men than women (as most of the engineering fields do). The theory is that women are more discouraged by a B in an entry-level course than men are (she cites some data from econ courses that support that theory, though it is only correlation, not necessarily causation).
Plenty has been written about whether hostility toward female students or a lack of female faculty members might be pushing women out of male-dominated majors such as computer science. Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.
As parents and teachers we encourage children to pursue fields that they enjoy, that they are good at, and that can support them later in life. It may be that girls are getting the “that they are good at” message more strongly than boys are, or that enjoyment is more related to grades for girls. These habits of thought can become firmly set by the time students become men and women in college, so minor setbacks (like getting a B in an intro CS course) may have a larger effect on women than on men.
I’m a little wary of putting too much faith in this theory, though, as the author exhibits some naiveté:
But I fear that women are dropping out of fields such as math and computer science not because they’ve discovered passions elsewhere but because they fear delivering imperfection in the “hard” fields that they (and potential employers) genuinely love. Remember, on net, many more women enter college intending to major in STEM or economics than exit with a degree in those fields. If women were changing their majors because they discovered new intellectual appetites, you’d expect to see greater flows into STEM fields, too.
It is very difficult for students, male or female, to transfer into STEM majors late—the number of required courses and prerequisite chains are too long.  As long as the humanities majors have few, unchained requirements and STEM majors have many, chained requirements, the transfer out of STEM will be far larger than the transfer into STEM. Expecting equal flow in both directions is naive.
But there is, I believe, a greater proportional loss of women from STEM fields in college than men, and most of the interventions trying to reduce that loss have not been very effective.  (Harvey Mudd has had some success, attributed to various causes.) If the theory put forth by Rampell is valid, what interventions might be useful? Here are a few I thought of:
  • Higher grades in beginning classes. Engineering courses generally average 0.4 or 0.5 grade points lower than the massively inflated grades in humanities courses. I doubt, somehow, that many engineering faculty will be comfortable with the humanities approach of giving anyone who shows up an A, no matter how bad their work. So I don’t think that this idea has any merit.
  • Lower entry points. One of the things that Harvey Mudd did was to require every freshman to take CS and to introduce a lower-level CS course for those who did not have previous programming. By having some lower-level courses, students could get high grades in their first course without teachers having to water down existing classes or engage in grade inflation. By requiring the course of all students, students who avoided the subject for fear of not being able to compete are given a chance to discover an interest in the field (and, apparently, many women at Harvey Mudd do discover an interest in CS as a result of the required course).
  • Extra tutoring help for B students in entry-level courses. Almost all the “help” resources at the University seem to be aimed at getting students from failing to passing—but the students who are barely passing after massive help do not make good engineering majors, and are likely to fail out of the major later on. It would be far more productive to try to turn the Bs into As, retaining more women (and minorities) in the field. Of course, this means that the assistance has to be at a higher level than it often is now—the tutors need to know the material extremely well and be able to assist others to achieve that expertise.  Basic study skills and generic group help may be good for getting from failing to passing, but may not be enough to get from B to A.
  • More information to students about the feasibility and desirability of continuing with a B. This sort of encouragement probably has to happen one-on-one from highly trusted people (more likely peers than adults).

These ideas are definitely half-baked—I’m not even fully convinced that the theory behind them is valid, much less that they would have the desired effect. I welcome comments and suggestions from my readers.

2013 December 18

First Common App submission

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:37
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Last night, my son submitted the first of his Common App college applications.  Because the deadline for the applications is January first, he has about 12 days to get his remaining 5 college applications done.  I suspect that he’s not going to make it for all of them, as the essays take him forever. Each of the colleges he is applying to requires a one to five more essays in addition to the Common App essay, and these essays have the sorts of prompts that shut him down—personal reflections, for the most part.  Strict word limitations are not particularly helpful (it can be harder to write a 500-word response than a 1000-word one).

The essay that has taken him the longest so far (discarding at least four drafts and trying lots of different approaches) is the Harvey Mudd essay with the prompt “What influenced you to apply to Harvey Mudd College? What about the HMC curriculum and community appeals to you? Please limit your response to 500 words.”  It did not take him long to come up with a list of appealing things about the college, but getting it into a coherent essay that was under 500 words was a major struggle.  In the end he managed to get about ¾ of his list in with a decent flow—I hope that the admissions officers appreciate the effort he put into it!

So far, starting in September, he has managed to finish a Common App essay, 2 UC essays, and 2 Harvey Mudd essays.  Completing 5 essays in 3 months does not argue well for doing approximately another 10 in 12 days. If he doesn’t get applications submitted, he won’t get into the corresponding schools, so he is planning to prioritize the remaining applications, and try to get the most important applications done first.  Right now his order is Harvey Mudd (done!), Stanford, Brown, and then, at about the same priority  UCB (done!), MIT, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon.  He has UCSD and UCSB as “safety” schools, since there was no extra effort applying to them as well as UCB, and the Creative Studies CS degree at UCSB looks like it might provide a little of the small-school advising and community that is missing at UCB.

My wife thinks that Brown will be the best fit for him, as he would not have to take any courses that didn’t interest him (he has a wide range of interests, but they don’t match the “general education” requirements at most universities).  While I see her point, I think that the smaller collaborative geeky community at Harvey Mudd may be a better fit for him, and he can do about half his general education as acting classes at Pomona and half with fellow geeks at HMU, so it wouldn’t be as onerous as most general ed requirements. I also like that Harvey Mudd has a higher ratio of women than the corresponding engineering and CS departments at any of the other schools—I don’t care for the “brogrammer” culture that has developed at some schools, and HMUs success at recruiting top women in tech fields is a good sign that the culture there is more open.

Stanford is attractive mainly for the entrepreneurial opportunities and how richly equipped the engineering facilities available to undergrads are—the reduced transportation hassles of being only 3 hours from home by public transit are a minor bonus. UCB, MIT, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon all have top notch reputations, but the faculty seemed more focused on the grad students than the undergrads.  Opportunities for research projects are big at those schools, but undergrads have to be pretty pushy to get them.

In terms of theater for non-theater majors, UCB, Brown, and Stanford probably provide the most opportunities, but also the most competition for roles.  The CMU theater program is world-class, but their productions are not very open to non-theater majors, though there are other theater opportunities not associated with their department.  Caltech has only a small theater department (closed when we visited campus).  Harvey Mudd has only a small amount of theater on campus, but the other Claremont colleges (particularly Pomona) make the theater opportunities about as good as at the big schools.  MIT seems to be in a middle ground, with more theater than Caltech, but less than other schools.  In terms of making theater an official part of his education, Harvey Mudd’s willingness to count  acting courses as his humanities concentration and UCB’s acting minor are probably the most attractive.

Personally, I think my son would be best served by going to Harvey Mudd or Brown for undergrad education, then to grad school at Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, or Carnegie-Mellon (depending on what specific field in computer science he gets most interested in).  But if he changes his mind about grad school, and wants to go straight into a startup from college, then Stanford, MIT, or Berkeley could be a better choice.

From a financial standpoint, Stanford or Berkeley would probably come out cheapest, and Brown the most expensive (based on very rough estimates from on-line net-price calculators), but we can afford 4 years at any of them, so price will probably not end up being an important factor in his decision.

 

 

2013 October 31

More difficulties with the new Common Application

In Difficulties with the new Common Application I talked about how homeschool parents were supposed to become “counselors” to enter the school profile, counselor letter, and transcript.  (No homeschool supplement any more, so any content that would have gone in the supplement now needs to be in those three documents or the student essay.)  The methods described in that post did allow me to become a counselor (which is a special version of a recommender, and requires that the student designate you as such for at least one college).

This week I finally finished all three documents that need to be uploaded.  I had uploaded the school profile and the counselor letter with no difficulty, even replacing one counselor letter with an updated one that fixed some minor writing problems.  But I had enormous difficult with the transcript.  It is a fairly large pdf file (250kB), because it has course descriptions for all the courses my son took, and because I created it with Pages, which uses a very inefficient representation for formatted text (as bad as Microsoft Word’s).  Common App claims to take PDF files up to 500kB, but every time I tried to upload the transcript, I got a spinning wheel icon that lasted forever, and the upload never completed.  I got the same results with both Firefox and Chrome, so the problem was not browser-specific. In one test, I left the upload running and the Common App timed out after an hour, without having uploaded the transcript.

I contacted the Common App help desk, and they seem to have gotten some of the bugs out of that part of the system (it no longer claims that they don’t respond to their e-mail).  They sent me some boilerplate text that duplicated the workaround instructions on the web site, which I had already tried, but then concluded that if all else failed, I should e-mail them the transcript and where it should go, and they would manually upload it.  I sent them the transcript last night, and by this morning they had uploaded it.  I still can’t view it with Firefox, and they still have a bad message telling me to download the PDF, without giving me a button to download with, but I can confirm that it is there with Chrome.

Bottom line:  don’t get close to deadlines on submitting anything to the Common App—the software is still so buggy that manual intervention is needed even for routine tasks, and that takes time.

My son has started requesting letters of recommendation.  He has four people he is asking: two professors he took math classes from at the university, a theater teacher he has had acting classes with for about 12 years, and a history teacher he had last year.  So far, three have responded to his e-mail request agreeing to write the letters, and he has registered them with the Common App.  One has even managed to upload her letter already.

He’s decided to try for Early Decision at Harvey Mudd.  It is his first-choice school, and having an early deadline will help him get his essays for at least one college done.  He will have to apply the University of California before hearing from Harvey Mudd, because UC has an earlier regular application deadline than any school that participates in the Common Application (the UC application forms have to be submitted in the month of November, while the standard deadline for almost all other schools is Jan 1).  The UC schools are not as high on his list as Stanford and Brown, but he is almost certain to get into some of the UCs, and they are the only “safety” schools on his list.

I just looked up the most recent common data sets on the university web sites for admission rates for male freshmen: HMC 12.7%, Stanford 6.8%, Brown 11.3%, MIT 7.2%, CMU 23.8%, UCB 17.1%, Caltech 9.0%, Olin 8.6%, UCSD 38.0%, UCSB 43.2%, … . Gender matters, since most of the tech schools admit similar numbers of males and females, but have far more male applicants. Note: the MIT figure is from 2011–12, the rest are from 2012–13, but I guess MIT is slow about updating their web site.  I was a little surprised to see that CMU is less selective than UCB, since they are roughly in the same equivalence class for computer science (both great schools for grad students, but perhaps a bit impersonal for the undergrads).

My son’s chances of getting in to a school are a little bit higher than the overall admission rates at that school, as he has good test scores (National Merit Semifinalist), an impressive transcript (I’m impressed, and I wrote the transcript!), and good letters of recommendation (I hope—the only one I’ve seen is the counselor’s letter, which I wrote).  But even with all that, his probability of getting in to each of the really selective schools probably only goes up to 20–25%.  For the less selective UCs, it probably goes up to 90%—hence our considering them safety schools.  I think he’ll get into at least one of his top six choices, if the essay writing doesn’t drive him crazy.  I think he’ll also do well at any of the schools, but that they’ll shape him in different ways.  I’m hoping that one of Harvey Mudd, Stanford, or Brown accepts him (which I estimate as having a probability of 40–50%), as I think those three are the best fits of any colleges we’ve considered.

One consequence of his choosing to try for early decision at Harvey Mudd is that I have to fill out the CSS Financial Aid forms using 2012 data and estimates for 2013. To fill out the form, you need all your financial records in order, since they want to know all the information from your tax forms and every penny of your assets. I finally got around to doing my 2012 taxes last week (even later than usual for me), but the tax forms turned out to be easier than I expected.  For the first time in decades, I was able to fill out the 1040A form instead of needing a 1040 with Schedules A, B, C, and D.  Of course, part of this was because I didn’t have any interest income, business income, or capital gains—just my salary and my wife’s salary.  I didn’t even try to compute itemized deductions this year, since they have come out almost exactly the standard deduction for the past couple of years, and I’ve not substantially upped my charitable contributions.

Based on the Harvey Mudd net price calculator and all the data I collected for the CSS form, our net price there would be about $55k/year—it’s a good thing we’ve been saving for it since the day he was born.  The other private schools would be similar, though the real net price would be higher for the East Coast schools, since the net-price calculator does not include the price of getting to and from the colleges, which would add a few thousand a year—only Stanford and UCB are close enough for public transit to be a viable option for getting to and from the college.  One thing that irks me a little bit about the way that financial aid is computed is that saving for college is penalized—for every dollar you save for college you get almost a dollar less in financial aid, so which I think is a perverse incentive for people not to save for college.

2013 April 20

College tours around LA

Sorry I’ve not been posting this week, but I’ve been on the road with my 11th-grade son around Los Angeles for science fair and college campus tours.

On Monday and Tuesday, we had the California State Science Fair, where he had a project in the math and software high school division, and I was judging in the math and software middle-school division.  He did not expect to win anything this year, as he had a fairly straightforward engineering project—the Arduino data logger that he wrote for my circuits class to use.  The project was well done for a high school student (comparable to some senior projects I’ve seen by college students), but not flashy in the way that science fair judges like. Indeed he did not win anything at state this year, but he was one of only 11 students who had been to state science fair 6 or more times—so he shows consistent quality and perseverance, even if he never wins the lottery that science fair judging often is.  The top math and software award at the high-school level this year went to a math project (not a software project), which is a bit unusual.  I did not read the poster for it in any detail, which I now regret, as it must have been pretty good to overcome the usual judging bias in favor of software.

The middle-school math and software category had a unanimous vote for the first-place project: an ambitious image-processing project with an interesting application and pretty good code (properly commented—a rarity at the middle-school level or even the high-school level).   The order of the next few projects was more strongly debated, but all of them were very good projects, and the order ended up depending more on the tastes and persuasive abilities of the judges than on the inherent merits of the projects.

Since we were down in Los Angeles for the science fair, we decided to extend the trip by 3 days to visit three colleges in the area: Caltech, UCLA, and Harvey Mudd.  [The science fair is right by USC, but that was not our list of colleges to visit—we’ve seen the campus often enough, and the academic program did not appeal.] Originally we had planned a west-to-east sweep (UCLA, Caltech, Harvey Mudd) to minimize the transit time, but Caltech was not doing tours on Thursday and Friday (preparing for their admitted-students yield event this weekend), so we changed the order to Caltech, UCLA, Harvey Mudd. To get from the science fair to Pasadena, we took a DASH bus, the red line (subway), and the gold line (light rail).  That used 2 different transit systems (LA DOT runs the DASH buses, and Metro runs the subway, the light rail, and all the other buses that we took on this trip).

I couldn’t find any reasonably priced motels or hotels near UCLA in my on-line searches, so we stayed one night in Pasadena and two nights in Claremont, with the UCLA tour sandwiched in between the 2-hour, 2-bus Pasadena-Westwood and 3-hour (bus, subway, train) Westwood-Claremont transits.  I had originally planned to take a taxi from UCLA to Claremont (a pretty expensive ride across Los Angeles), but my son wanted to include a Metrolink commuter rail link in the trip somewhere in our trip, so we ended up taking the Metro number 2 bus from UCLA to the red line, the red line to Union Station, and Metrolink to Claremont.  The subway and commuter rail portions were fairly pleasant, but the number 2 bus was so full that we felt guilty for having luggage—Metro probably needs to run more buses on that route during rush hour.

The LA transit system is usually maligned by the locals, who claim that it is so bad that they have to drive everywhere, but it seemed pretty reasonable to us—under-utilized, perhaps, but reasonably quick and with decent connections.  Of course, just about any local bus system will only provide about 10-mile-per-hour transportation, so bicycling is almost always faster, but that is an option that is seems very , very few people choose in Los Angeles.

OK, enough on transit, what about the 3 colleges?

At Caltech we had a very small tour group (just 3 prospective students) and a friendly, barefoot tour guide.  We were shown the Caltech “houses” and the guide talked a lot about Caltech traditions.  Some of the traditions (like the honor code) seem great, but a lot of the other traditions seemed to be based mainly on rivalry, competition, and mean-spirited pranks. The social activities mentioned (like the interhouse parties) seemed to be mainly competitive events also (which house could build the most elaborate set for their party).  We saw almost no students while on the tour, no classrooms, no professors—very little other than the houses and the outsides of buildings.  The campus seemed strangely deserted for a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the term.

The Caltech campus does have some nice-looking buildings, and there are supposedly a lot of Nobel prize winners around, but we didn’t hear much about students actually interacting with the professors—the impression was that the professors mainly kept their heads down and did research with their postdocs and grad students. My son had tried to arrange meetings with a computer science faculty member by e-mail, but the first one he contacted suggested he talk to someone else, and that person said he was too busy, but that my son should just wander down the hall and stick his head in an open door.  We ended up not talking to any Caltech faculty or even seeing any from a distance.

The one academic message that we got from Caltech was “physics”.  They teach physics at Caltech—occasionally they give it a different name (math, chemistry, computer science, engineering, … ), but when you look at the research interests of the faculty, it is almost all physics in different flavors.  My son likes physics, and would probably do ok at Caltech, but he has other interests as well, and Caltech does not seem to provide instruction or opportunities in them.  He also likes doing applied work more than theory, and Caltech (according to the student tour guide and what we could glean from the web) is very theory-oriented.  Caltech does have some theater that he could participate in, but their entire “theater and visual arts” program apparently fits in a small 2-story house and a shed at the corner of campus, and there was no one around on a Wednesday afternoon to get any information from.

UCLA was in many ways the opposite of Caltech.  It is a large, bustling campus, crowded with students the whole time we were there. Students walked or hung out in groups (very little wheeled transportation, because of the number of hills and stairs).  There did not seem to be many quiet places on campus (unlike Caltech, where the entire campus seemed to be silent).

The tour group we were with for a 2-hour walking tour was large—probably 15 students plus accompanying family members.  The tour guide showed us many buildings (including the insides of a nice library), but no residences (which are a 20-minute walk away from the academic buildings), and she told us about admissions and other generic information.  The campus tours seem to be entirely student run (the campus tours office is in the student government building and staffed entirely by students), rather than part of the admissions office.  The tour was pretty good, for a large, generic tour, and UCLA does have some nice-looking buildings (and nice-looking students, but I’m not supposed to notice that).

We had arranged a meeting with a CS faculty member, who told us about his classes and research. Undergrad computer science at UCLA has huge classes (60–80 in upper-division courses, and three times that in lower-division courses). The faculty member told us that he does not allow undergrads into his grad courses and that few undergrads get research opportunities.  He did not have numbers, but estimating from what he said, it sounds like only about 5% of CS majors at UCLA get involved in faculty research—an appallingly small number.  It sounds like it is hard for an undergrad at UCLA to get a first-rate computer science education, because they are so focused on pumping through huge numbers of OK students.

UCLA does have a great reputation in theater, so we went over to the opposite side of campus to find out whether a non-theater major could ever get roles.  We did not talk to a theater faculty member nor an administrator, but to a friendly group of theater majors.  They basically said that non-majors had essentially no chance of getting a role (or even tech work) in any theater department production—even the theater minors only got theater-appreciation classes, not acting classes.  They did say that there were some non-departmental theater productions, but that they knew almost nothing about them.  In short, it sounded like what my son wants (a really advanced computer science education with the ability to do a fair amount of acting on the side) is not available at UCLA.

I had expected Harvey Mudd to be similar to Caltech.  They both have reputations for being very techie schools with impossibly high workloads, and Harvey Mudd was started by someone with close ties to Caltech.  They both have a similar-sounding common core requirement and both have a very pure form of honor code (tests are unproctored take-home exams, with students responsible for timing themselves as well as following directions about whether notes and books are permitted).  There were a number of observable differences, though, even on a one-day visit:

  • Harvey Mudd has some of the ugliest buildings I’ve seen on any college campus.  The concrete block buildings with “warts” make UCSC’s cast concrete bunkers look stylish in contrast.  It is clear that Mudd has not been investing in the amenities wars—there is no luxury here.  The interior of the dorms look a lot like the concrete-block dorms I lived in back in the early 70s at Michigan State, but perhaps even more crowded.
  • The campus is small.  Our walking tour showed us every building on campus, including a walk through the main academic building, showing us classrooms, faculty offices, and even the wood shop and machine shop (which Mudders can use 24/7 once they have passed the safety training). The class in which students have to make a hammer to specifications from a chunk of wood and a chunk of metal seems like a good, practical course.
  • The campus is flat, so wheeled transportation is common (bikes, unicycles, skateboards, long boards, and freeline skates seemed the most popular).
  • The density of students was between that of Caltech and UCLA.  There were plenty of students around, but it was never so crowded or so loud as to be claustrophobic. A lot of the students were wearing geek T-shirts and seemed likely to be the sorts of kids my son would get along well with.
  • Faculty were clearly visible—one physics professor even kibbitzed the tour guide as he was giving the explanation of the physics core courses.
  • The admissions office gave my son a ticket for a free meal at the dining hall (and a reduced-price ticket for me).  We had lunch there, and the food was pretty good for a dining hall—more important it included several things that my son would eat on a regular basis.  We also noticed that several of the faculty ate there.  I don’t know if Harvey Mudd encourages the faculty to eat with the students (free lunch might do the trick, or the unavailability of other options), but it was good to see faculty and students in the same hall, even if at different tables.  I also noticed that none of the students were eating alone—almost everyone was in a group of 2 to 10 students. For a group of geeks, that is a rather astonishing bit of social engineering—I wonder how they accomplished it.
  • My son was also given a list of all the classes meeting at Harvey Mudd this semester and invited to sit in on any of them.  Unfortunately, we were there on a Friday, so few classes were meeting (mostly long labs).  We sat in on one of the “choice” labs for a while, and saw mainly one-on-one mentoring by the faculty member, which was good to know about, but not very exciting to watch.
  • Harvey Mudd does have an 11-course humanities, social science, and arts (HSA) requirement, about half of which has to be done at Harvey Mudd, with the rest usually being done at the other Claremont colleges.  It would be possible for him to do a theater concentration (5 theater-related courses), by taking the one Harvey Mudd theater course (simply titled “Shakespeare”) and 4 courses at Pomona.  Most of the Mudders take a fair number of courses at the other Claremont colleges—usually PE courses and courses in their HSA concentration, and cross-registration seems to be fairly straight-forward, since the Claremont colleges share a common registration system.
  • There is an aikido course at Scripps that my son could take for PE—he’s not done aikido since he was quite young, but thinks that he would enjoy picking it up again more than most PE options.
  • My son had made an appointment with a computer science faculty member and we had a good conversation with him about the Harvey Mudd requirements and opportunities in computer science.  All the computer science students have to do research or development projects and most do more than one (the senior clinic plus one or more summer research projects).  There seems to be enough depth in courses and research in the fields my son is interested in that the lack of grad courses is not really important.  Even the required common-core first course in computer science has an option for students sufficiently advanced in CS, so that he would not have to repeat stuff he’s already done.
  • The tour guide talked a lot about coöperation, mentoring, and group projects—concepts that were independently brought up by the admissions officer and by the CS faculty member.  The group projects don’t seem to be the one-person project forced on a group that most middle-school and high-school projects are, but projects big enough to benefit from multiple people working on them.  They do practice pair programming in most CS classes, which will be a new experience for my son.

Although I had expected Caltech and Harvey Mudd to be very similar schools from what I knew before the visits, I ended up with very different impressions of them.  Caltech seems to be a competitive school with a physics-centric, theoretical focus, while Harvey Mudd is a cooperative school with an applied engineering focus.  My son will probably apply to both, since getting in is largely a lottery (they both have about a 10% acceptance rate and his test scores are only average for either school), but I think that he’d end up much happier at Harvey Mudd.  UCLA looks much less attractive (other than financially), but he’ll probably apply to several of the UC schools as he is much more likely to get into them.

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