Its faculty and alumni have won 39 Nobel Prizes. Graduates include former Compaq Chairman Ben Rosen and Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, known for the law that computer processing speed doubles every two years.
Is it Stanford, Harvard or MIT? No, it’s the California Institute of Technology, a school with fewer than 1,000 undergraduates in Pasadena, California.
As parents caught up in the college corruption scandal head to court Wednesday, 128-year-old Caltech provides a counterpoint to the perception that money and connections can rig admissions.
The federal investigation has renewed scrutiny of admissions favoritism shown to children of donors and alumni, as well as athletes playing exclusive sports such as crew, fencing and squash.
Caltech’s “selection criteria are based on the highest standards of academic excellence,” spokeswoman Deborah Williams-Hedges said in an email. The typical student has an SAT math score of 790 to 800, which represents a perfect result. The school also selects for students whose prior pursuits demonstrate a passion for science.
“The big man, or woman, on campus here isn’t the football player or the basketball player,” said K. Mani Chandy, a professor emeritus of computer science. “It’s the student who takes on 55 or 60 hours of coursework a week and gets straight A’s.”
Caltech gives no preference to the applications of alumni kids, or legacies. That makes it a rarity among elite colleges. Its close cousin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has the same policy.
A federal lawsuit accuses Harvard of maintaining quotas on the number of Asian Americans it accepts. According to court filings, they often have superior credentials but are assigned lower rankings for subjective “personal” qualities. Harvard said its system is fair and last week announced that Asian Americans accounted for a record 25.4 percent of those offered positions in this fall’s first-year class. At Caltech, Asian Americans comprise 40 percent of freshmen in the current school year.
Unlike the Ivy League, Caltech plays in the less competitive NCAA Division III. In basketball, the school, almost proudly, tracked how its Beavers once maintained a 310-game losing streak, which it broke in 2015.
This year, the Beavers set another milestone by winning the 10th game of the season, the first time since the mid 1950s that it reached double-digit victories. The women’s water polo team last month won its first game in almost two years. Caltech has no football team.
Caltech’s Williams-Hedges said its students are “truly amateur, scholar athletes,” and “we are very proud of our athletics program.”
Caltech’s campus is a jumble of architectural styles, from California Mission to what might be called 21st Century Stainless Steel, nestled in a suburban neighborhood northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The university manages the nearby NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which explores deep space through robotic missions.
On a recent Southern California afternoon, students lugged backpacks laden with electronics and science textbooks across the campus. Near picnic tables on a patio, a whiteboard featured complex ratios, not far from a sculpture representing math’s golden ratio.
Amol Patil picked up lunch after spending the entire night on his take-home statistics final. Like many students, the 20-year-old sophomore was bemused by talk of parents paying to cheat on college entrance exams or bribe coaches.
“Even if you could pay-to-play and you were to come here, Caltech is not a vacation,” Patil said. “It’s multiple all-nighters every week. You do science day in and day out and, if you don’t like science or you’re not interested in science and, if you just want to go party, you will not like it, even if you could come.”
Caltech students are known for their quirks. Despite the glorious Southern California weather, students like to explore a network of underground steam tunnels, which are adorned with murals, notes and poems dating to the 1960s.
Undergraduates also enjoy ambitious pranks. In 1987, the 100th anniversary of Hollywood, they used black and white plastic to make its famed hillside sign read “Caltech.” A few years earlier, during the Rose Bowl game between the University of Illinois and the University of California at Los Angeles, they hacked into the stadium’s electronic scoreboard to make it read Caltech 38 — MIT 9.
Still, in one way, its campus is far less diverse than other elite schools; its 2017-2018 first-year class had three black students.
“Caltech’s policy insures that the most advantaged white and Asian students are admitted,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a leading critic of the use of standardized testing in education.
Caltech said it chooses candidates without regard to race or the ability to pay. It said the school reaches out to qualified members of minority groups, flying in promising candidates and teaming up with nonprofits that encourage diversity on campus.
The university’s demographics resemble the elite New York City public high school Stuyvesant, which relies on the results of a single standardized test and focuses on math, science and technology. Three-quarters of Stuyvesant’s students are Asian American. It recently admitted only seven black students for 895 spots, creating an uproar and renewing calls to change its admissions practices.
Harvard — which like most elite colleges, says it uses a holistic method for admissions — recently said 15 percent of those accepted to this fall’s freshman class were African American.
Schaeffer and others say fill-in-the-bubble exams ignore many other forms of intelligence such as emotional and creative. None other than Steve Jobs, who attended liberal arts college Reed, stressed how humanities disciplines contributed to his triumphs at Apple.
And then there’s the other reason to go to college: social connections and, well, fun. The University of Southern California, about 14 miles from Caltech’s campus, has been at the center of the admissions scandal. (Parents including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are expected to appear in Boston federal court Wednesday on charges they cheated their kids into schools such as USC, Stanford and Yale.)
Regardless, USC remains a hot national ticket in part because of its ties to Hollywood and its vibrant social life and spirit, fueled by its successful Division 1 Trojans sports teams.
“When I think of a typical college student, I associate it more with things like frats, sororities, games, big parties and constant drinking and just kind of goofing off for four years after you move out from your parents,” said Richard Dargan, a 20-year-old Caltech sophomore majoring in computer science. “I don’t think anyone here would really fit that because everyone here is just really hard working and very passionate about what they do.”