Caltech Competes

Peter Wood

The California Institute of Technology is anomalous in American higher education in its refusal to admit students on the basis of race. It has no quota system. Officially, the Caltech admissions system is based solely on academic standards.   

Ten years ago, Caltech floated to the very top of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which occasioned a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Caltech, Ranked No. 1 by ‘U.S. News,’ Has No Black Freshmen.” As it happened, Caltech that year had offered admission to 520 students, seven of whom were black. But none of the seven enrolled. 

The Chronicle seemed more interested in why U.S. News & World Report failed to include “racial diversity in its criteria.”  The magazine’s college ranking editor gave a wonder answer, “It’s difficult to assign a value to diversity.” But a vice provost at Caltech drew a sorrowful face. “Caltech is hurt by not having every possible kind of student here.” 

The vice provost no doubt meant to utter piety not parody, but he really hit the latter. “Every possible kind of student?” Really? Well, true, Sweden has recently twice admitted a convicted murderer to medical school. Landmark College in Vermont specializes in the learning disabled. Yale made headlines in 2006 by admitting as a “special student” the former spokesman for the Taliban, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi. I’d venture a guess that Caltech hasn’t admitted many hunter/gatherers recently, or doesn’t see itself suffering for its under-representation of illiterates. 

Which just underscores the obvious: the vice provost didn’t mean “every possible kind of student.” He meant only the categories of students which the diversity doctrine singles out: blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, women, and (sometimes) gays. 

Caltech’s administration decided that something had to be done. In 2001, it issued a “Diversity Statement” endorsed by the Board of Trustees, faculty, and administration, but signed by President David Baltimore. It contains some ominous if vague mutterings:   “We recognize that we must be willing to modify our traditional assumptions to create a more welcoming environment.”   But it conspicuously did not endorse racial preferences in admissions or redefine “intellectual achievement” to include victim studies. President Baltimore followed it up by creating a “Diversity Initiative Fund” to “foster new ideas and strategies” for promoting multicultural programs. Initially it gave out $25,000 per year. Baltimore also created a Diversity Progress Group which began to issue reports in 2002. 

The Diversity Progress Group’s (DPG) reports are full of interesting data as well as history.   The January 2004 report in particular is a case study in wish fulfillment. Minority enrollments were very low but DPG was greatly encouraged by retention rates, which it credited to the University’s “high achievement program” for minority students and to an intensive summer orientation for minority students called Freshman Summer Institute: 

Retention Rates*

Year                     Total Rate                           Latino Rate                        African Am. Rate

1997/8                  94.01%(217)                       85.7% (7)                            100% (2)

1998/9                  96.46% (254)                      90.48% (21)                         100% (8)

1999/00                97.01% (234)                      100% (14)                            0 students

2000/01                97.4% (205)                         92.3% (13)                           100% (4)

2001/02                94.39% (214)                      68.42% (19)                         100% (5)

2002/03                94.05% (252)                      94.74% (19)                         100% (3)

2003/04                96.34% (191)                      88.89% (18)                         0 students


Caltech made great efforts to achieve seemingly meager results. Those efforts were of course rooted in the beliefs enunciated in the 2001 “Diversity Statement.” And behind that statement, in turn, lay the sense of embarrassment that the University’s academic excellence existed in a sphere of human endeavor cut off from the great ideological project in higher education of the last quarter-century: getting the racial numbers right.

What about now? Caltech remains an interesting case in American higher education. It clearly wants to retain its high academic standards, but it is also trying desperately hard to get on the diversity bandwagon. It has its own Office for Minority Student Education which focuses on “support services and programming for minority students.”   It has its own Diversity page, with links to diversity news.  The news includes the results of the 2008 Summer YESS Program—an exploration of “the excitement and rigor of neuroscience and physics” just for “exceptional underrepresented high school students.”  I’m skeptical about the legality of that venture. The Office of Civil Rights has repeatedly ruled that such programs must be open to all. But if the intent is to create a stream of minority applicants for Caltech’s own programs, it does not appear to have had much success. 

                The U.S. Department of Education statistics show Caltech as mainly male, and overwhelmingly white (non-Hispanic) and Asian.  The latest data from fall 2007:

Total undergrad enrollment 913

31 percent female, 69 percent male

43 percent White Non-Hispanic

1 percent Black Non-Hispanic

28 percent Asian/Pacific Islander

0 percent American Indian/Alaskan Native

3 percent Race/Ethnicity Unknown

9 percent Non-Resident Alien


Caltech remains a benchmark for American higher education in the sense that it is the closest thing we have to a major university that sticks by a merit principle in admissions.    It is plainly not closed to minority candidates. Rather the opposite: it is eager to do everything thing it can to encourage applicants and to help those who are admitted to succeed. My guess is that the eagerness reaches the point of excess in some ways and that some talented minority students would rather not have all the fuss over their racial and ethnic backgrounds. But be that as it may, Caltech does give us a picture of what the highest levels of scientific education in the United States might look like in the absence of racial preferences.

                That’s a yardstick that could be useful in states, including California, where racial preferences are prohibited by law, but in which public colleges and universities connive ways to get around the prohibition. 

                The very small numbers of minority students at Caltech are also perhaps a Rorschach Test for American attitudes about race and achievement.  Are the minority numbers so small because disparities in K-12 school leave too few minority students with the advanced skills needed to compete in science at the Caltech level? Are the numbers depressed because scientifically-talented minority students prefer academic communities that have a “critical mass” of other minority students?  Is the supply of top-level minority students in the sciences restricted by cultural emphases in the United States that de-value intellectual achievement?  My own sense is that the regime of racial preferences throughout American higher education channels many capable students away from Caltech.

               Be that as it may, because it is nice to have a little institutional diversity, I hope Caltech sticks by its basic policy.

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