Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Real Tragedy at Yale

I just got back from a college tour of Harvard, Yale and MIT, as part of a ritual, or rite of passage if you will, for one of my kids. Being back on a college campus brought back memories buried deep within. The intellectual freedom, world class student body, fantastic faculty, and then...some tragedy.

It happened when we visited Yale campus in New Haven, CT. The local populace was reeling from the news of the murder of a graduate student. On the day of the visit, the campus newspaper had large headlines "Suspect Arrested", followed by all the gory details of how the body was discovered, and probable cause of death. The admissions seminar, usually an upbeat session, had a somber mood, with a lot of parents asking how safe the campus was.

This was the overwhelming story that drowned out what I thought was another tragedy. The admissions officer mentioned that the directors of Yale had decided to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields their top priority because "we are not producing enough scientists and engineers, and we are importing them from other countries". Well duh! This has been going on for over three decades, and it has taken so long for it to filter down to one of our elite schools. But wait! There's more. He also mentioned that Yale just spent over $1 billion to build a brand new engineering building, they have a student to faculty ratio of almost 1:1, and they would love to have their students take advantage of it. He said the biggest problem was students enrolling into the school as prospective engineering students, and then switching to some other field during their stay at Yale. Now let's see - you have an ABET accredited engineering program, you are spending over $10 million per engineering student to build a brand new building, and arguably the best student-faculty ratio anywhere, why would anyone want to leave the program?

I asked the gentleman from admissions if he had any solution to the problem. He said he had no idea. But I have a few thoughts as to why students getting into Yale may want to switch fields. Let me count the ways.

1. When one thinks of Yale, one conjures up law, business, and liberal arts. Engineering does not compute.

2. Those who enroll as engieering students have to take a much more rigorous course load compared to their peers in other fields, which makes them feel left out.

3. The Yale dorms, or "colleges" as they are called, are deliberately mixed in more ways than one. The main intent appears to be to cross pollinate different thoughts and ideas, but it also makes the engineering students feel like they are being punished - having to study long hours or do experiments in labs while their dorm mates may be having group discussions on world hunger.

4. On top of all this, a Yale graduate in a liberal arts degree will probably end up with as good a job as a Yale engineer today, although this point is arguable.

No wonder students who enter wanting to be engineers switch to other fields. As if to prove my point, the next admissions officer we met was an engineering graduate from Yale, who chose to work as an admissions officer after graduation. When asked, he said his future plans did not include an engineering career, although I hope he changes his mind.

The reader may be wondering - why is this such a tragedy? After all, students must be free to choose whatever they want. If they want to be doctors or lawyers, it is their choice. I agree to some extent. However, when taken in the larger context of how bad a shape our economy is in, and how we got here, I see a different imperative. We do not have enough professionals working in wealth creating STEM fields. As a corollary, we don't have enough graduates coming out of our colleges with STEM degrees. The new developing economies churn out several times the number of engineers and scientists compared to the US. If we want the economic recovery to have some legs, we need more people working to invent new things that create new wealth. Doctors, lawyers, and liberal arts majors rely on an economy that creates new wealth, and they suffer equally when the economy is in the tank. This implies that if we have a few precious students with talent and motivation in the STEM fields, we should be doing everything we can to nurture them, so they achieve their fullest potential. It is hard enough to keep a student motivated through high school so that he/she takes the most rigorous math and science classes. Do we want to waste the effort by having them switch to another field just because of the college environment?

Fortunately, I found the answer to Yale's problem was only 120 miles away - at MIT. It is a place where talent and achievement in STEM is not only nurtured, but celebrated. Not only do the incoming freshmen feel like they belong there, they go on to achieve at a stunning rate in scientific and engineering fields. Their peers, professors, the entire support system exists to promote technical excellence. They are not alone. There are others like Harvey Mudd, Cal Tech, Rensselaer, RIT, Olin College, and Rose-Hulman, just to name a few, that cater to excellent technical minds. All Yale needs to do is compare how their engineering students are treated versus those in the other tech schools, and they will get their answer.

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