Diversity in Admissions at Caltech

By Aditee Prabhutendolkar | Published 10/27/2020
Diversity in Admissions at Caltech
A photo from the "Diversity" page on the Caltech Admissions website

In light of recent efforts to reckon with the institute’s past, it’s no secret that Caltech has had a complicated relationship with racial diversity, not least when it comes to undergraduate and graduate admissions. In 1998, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education even called it “the whitest of the nation’s 25 highest-ranked universities.”

Yet, in the past few years, many changes in the admissions process have attempted to increase Caltech’s inclusivity and overall diversity.

Admissions to Caltech start at what Jarrid Whitney, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, Enrollment and Career Services, calls the “pipeline.” Whitney has been overseeing undergraduate admissions since 2010, and believes Caltech needs to focus on getting more diverse students in its applicant pool and increasing the proportion of students identifying as racial minorities who choose to accept their offers of admission.

In fact, he identifies as a tribal member of Six Nations Cayuga; one of his goals when he took his position in 2010 was to bring more students of color to campus.

One unfortunate truth Whitney revealed was the fact that only 200 African-American students apply to college each year who have shown that they can handle the academic rigor of Caltech and are STEM-inclined. In his 10 years at the admissions office, the number of undergraduate students at Caltech who self-identify as African-American has increased (from 13 to 40), but the total number of 200 applicants around the country has remained roughly the same.

According to Whitney, Caltech’s reputation as racially exclusive means it often loses potential applicants to peer institutions like MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. The question is how Caltech can improve its ability to identify and connect with these students.

Increasing diversity in the “pipeline” is probably the most difficult part of admissions. One reason why students don’t apply to Caltech is because of the display of scores they used to see on the class profile on our website. Many polls and statistics demonstrate that higher income students tend to score better on standardized tests, so many disadvantaged students don’t apply because they don’t think they stand a fighting chance.

Nikki Chun, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, explains that these test scores were there to “give some indication of the kind of preparedness the [admissions] committee is looking for,” but they have been removed in light of testing difficulties during the pandemic.

Regarding testing, Chun ensures to advertise that testing is “one factor among many.” She emphasizes that the admissions committee is “fueled by the context” that the “playing field is not so equal.”

Chun also addressed that Caltech’s priority is to select students who will thrive here. It has never been a school to broadcast something such as “all 50 states are represented at Caltech.” For many students, “it takes a different level of courage to hold an identity that few others do.” Because the college experience is built on “relationships and connectivity,” she would never want a student to attend Caltech if they don’t feel “safe” and believe that they won’t “find their space.”

Due to Whitney’s and Chun’s efforts, many programs are incorporated to increase diversity in the Caltech student body. Whitney began the Up Close fly-in program as a way to bring underrepresented students to campus.

WiSTEM also began in 2012. It’s a one-day showcase of professors, researchers, and JPL scientists, to encourage young women to apply and attend Caltech.

Other efforts include partnering with QuestBridge, College Horizon (for Native Americans and Hawaiians, which Chun is a board member of), and American Talent Initiative.

As for graduate admissions, Professor Tim Colonius chairs the Advisory Committee on Student Admissions and Recruitment, initiated by President Thomas Rosenbaum. One of the committee’s goals is to recruit "racially minoritized populations."

According to Professor Colonius, the committee “hopes to understand whether, given the structure of the admissions process, are there improvements we can make?”. In graduate admissions, “Faculty are primary reviewers of applicants... They’re looking for students that they’re going to take into their research programs.” As a result, diversity is often overlooked by graduate admissions. Unlike undergraduate admissions, where a class is recruited with the big picture in mind, students are individually chosen.

The committee has yet to begin its work, but Professor Colonius says that he believes “diversity on campus should reflect the diversity of the society around us. And if it’s different, we should be asking ourselves why. If our competitors have more parity between men and women or racial minorities, then we know there’s something we should be doing to become as good as them.”

One more contested point in Caltech’s ongoing diversity issues is the campus’s low population. Often, the lack of representation is attributed to the fact that there aren’t enough students to have accurate representation. While the statistics can get skewed from a small sample size, it should be no excuse for lack of diversity in admissions. Professor Colonius added, “If we’re only making a few offers, we should make the effort to get those few students.”

Caltech still has a lot of work to do, especially compared to its peers. And although many changes need to be made for the institute to better connect with students who identify as racial minorities, it’s uplifting to see positive changes being made in the admissions process.

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