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Original Article:
An Unknown Quantity (spring 2002)


Olin College
April 2009

THE PLANS for Olin College were ambitious from the start, anticipating a student body that would grow from an initial class of 32 to more than 600, along with about 60 faculty, in its first ten years. Those projections turned out to be overly optimistic. However, the college has maintained its core founding principles, and continues to provide each student with a full four-year scholarship covering tuition.

After the first two years of operation, during which accommodations were included in the scholarship, the college did begin charging students for room and board. (For the 2009-10 academic year, the cost of tuition is $36,400; room and board is $13,230, along with about $2,600 for health insurance, a laptop computer and student fees.) Of the estimated “total student budget” of $54,523 for the current year, $18,123 is not covered by the Olin scholarship.

National CrossTalk visited Olin College in 2001 when it was admitting its first class of students, or “partners,” who would share in the creation of the college–from the dorms to the curriculum. “Things have developed a lot since that time,” said Joseph Hunter, assistant vice president for external relations and director of communication, in an interview. “We still don’t have traditional academic departments; we don’t charge tuition; faculty are on five-year contracts, and there is no tenure.”

The college has also completed the task of developing its curriculum, and has won accreditation from both its regional accreditor, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

There are currently about 300 students at Olin–a substantial increase, but only half of what was originally envisioned. “The idea of an enrollment of 600 had been discussed when we started recruiting students, but now we have built the curriculum and have a sense of the cost per student,” Hunter explained. “And so we settled in around 300 students—probably where we will stay for a while, at least until the stock market recovers.”

Because Olin provides such generous support to its students, and relies on the return from a large endowment for its funding, tough economic times can be especially treacherous. “We are vulnerable,” Hunter said, adding that there are advantages to Olin’s position as well. “We have some strengths coming out of that also, because part of the idea of Olin, and the full-tuition scholarship, was that we would have such a large endowment that we could weather these storms. We still have one of the largest endowments per student in the country, and that helps us out a lot.”

Still, the question remains: Will Olin be forced to begin charging tuition? “Somewhere out there, there is the possibility that we will charge tuition, or give a partial scholarship,” Hunter acknowledged. “That gives us an advantage compared to others that are already maxing out on those—and private schools that are already charging high tuitions.” Hunter emphasized that Olin would only charge tuition “as a last resort,” and is not considering such a move at this time. “That is not something that is currently being planned,” he said. “Not charging tuition has been such a signature thing for us.”

An economic downturn does not affect Olin immediately, because the value of its endowment is averaged over a three-year period, and the college’s budget is based on this three-year average. This accounting practice serves to “iron out the peaks and valleys,” Hunter explained. “The 12-quarter average works for us in bad times, and a little bit against us in good times. We feel that we are going to ride this out pretty well.”

Another advantage Olin enjoys is an unusually committed group of alumni. “The students see themselves as the co-founders of the institution,” Hunter said. “They are the most involved alumni that you’ll find anywhere. They were pioneers, and now they are our ambassadors in the world, getting good positions in companies, going to graduate schools. We are counting on them to talk up the Olin experience.”

Matthew Hill was a member of that pioneering first class (which graduated in 2006), and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Stanford. “The fact that I went on to Stanford and won a fellowship there sort of puts the stamp of approval on Olin,” Hill said. “Having the Stanford name also opens a lot of doors.”

The decision to participate in the first class at Olin “was definitely a risk,” Hill said. “At first it was like going into the deep end, not knowing if your feet will touch the bottom. But by my second year I was getting offers for internships, and I was feeling a little better about it. I’m glad I took the risk of going to a small school that was so engineering focused–not like going to Stanford, were you can take anything you want. I think for almost everyone in our first class it turned out well.”

Two of Hill’s fellow Olin alumni, Kate Blazek and Polina Segalova, are also at Stanford. They were awarded National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships, along with Susan Fredholm and Que Anh Nguyen. Two other graduates, Jay Gantz and Joy Poisel, accepted Fulbright Scholarships for study in Europe.

About one-third of the class went on to graduate school, while the rest found positions in engineering or related fields. A few pursued other interests as varied as the Peace Corps and an acting career.

“We’re extremely pleased at the exciting postgraduate plans of our first class of students,” said Olin President Richard Miller, in the summer 2006 issue of Innovation, the campus magazine. “The prestigious offers our graduates are receiving exceed our expectations–and our expectations were high.”

Perhaps because of the influence of students at Olin, the college has been rated very high in national surveys of campus amenities. In recent rankings by the Princeton Review, Olin placed seventh on the list for best food, and second in the category of “dorms like palaces,” just behind Loyola College in Maryland. “When they built the new dorm, we pushed to have the rooms be suites–so everybody had a little bit of privacy, but shared common amenities,” Hill said.

“In that first year, we learned the value of involving students,” Hunter said. “They are very smart. They are on all the important committees, and we feel like it is very important to get their voice on things.”

Currently about 40 percent of the students at Olin are women–less than the target of 50 percent, but still considered a favorable ratio for an engineering program. “The national average for women in engineering programs is about 20 percent, so we are about twice that,” Hunter said. The college’s faculty-student ratio is admirable as well. “We have about 35 faculty members–about nine-to-one. We feel that that’s about right for the kind of faculty-intensive program we have here.”

Hill has no regrets about his choice to attend Olin. “It was somewhat limited in terms of some opportunities that you would have at other schools,” he said. “But I felt that they did things really well…I left with a good skill set and a job offer.”

—Todd Sallo

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