California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, has certainly gone a long way from its humble vocational school beginnings with 38 Nobel Prize-winning faculty and alumni to date. One of them was Linus Carl Pauling, the only person who had won two of these prestigious awards by himself–a Nobel Peace Prize and a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (Nobel Media, 2020). With a strong emphasis on the physical sciences, engineering, and technology, it comes as no surprise that Caltech typically places on the top list of people who are actively pursuing these fields, either for undergraduate or graduate studies, to set themselves up for a promising career in physics, chemistry, and professions in STEM.
But how does Caltech measure up in other aspects of education? In this article, we will walk you through what Caltech life is about, from Caltech academic programs, research areas, its unique house system, tuition and other fees, and other essential information to help you determine if this school is for you.
The California Institute of Technology, or Caltech as it is known, is a private research and teaching university. Specializing in science and engineering, Cal tech has enjoyed the reputation of being recognized as a leading university in scientific research and education all over the world. In fact, it is ranked today as the second-best institution by the World University Rankings 2020 right behind the University of Oxford. But this small university had humbler beginnings. Its history can be categorized into two eras (Goldstein, 1998).
In 1891, a Chicago politician, philanthropist, and former abolitionist by the name of Amos Throop founded a small local school (Goldestein, 1998; Caltech, n.d.). In November of that year, the institution only had a six-member faculty providing service to only 31 students. Later, in 1893, it took on the name of Throop Polytechnic Institute, emphasizing a vocational-heavy program. It served the Pasadena community by teaching a wide range of subjects, from zoology to arts and crafts.
In 1906, Throop was looking for a fresh direction for the institute. Pasadena astronomer and the first director of the Wilson Observatory, George Ellery Hale, provided it for him.
Successfully recruited to sit on the board in 1907, Hale worked quickly to transform Throop from a local school to a research-heavy institution. With his lead, Throop dropped other programs and its high school to concentrate on its college, moving towards a science and engineering direction.
Hale also recruited James A. B. Scherer who served as president between 1908 and 1920. Arthur A. Noyes, a top physical chemist and a former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), also came on board with Hale. This singular act did not just bring chemistry to Throop at the level that rivaled MIT, but it also brought the institution to the national stage (Goldstein, 1998). In 1913, Throop underwent another name change and officially became Throop College of Technology.
The year 1917 was pivotal for Throop. It was in this year that Robert A. Millikan joined the college, serving as a director of physical research for several months (Goldstein, 1998). The three of them—Hale, Noyes, and Millikan—spent the WWI years in Washington, recruiting and organizing scientists to work on military problems. All the while, they were accumulating valuable contacts that served the school later.
Caltech figured heavily in the first World War. Its war activities involved proximity fuses, rockets, and its famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The school also had $80 million in federal funds for war-related R&D. Forward to Armistice Day in 1918, however, the institution declared it was ready to transform the mainly “engineering school into an institution that puts pure science first (Goldstein, 1998).”
Firmly set on this new course, the school was renamed as the California Institute of Technology on February 10, 1920 (Caltech, n.d.).
In the 1920s, Caltech was only focused on the physical sciences. Until 1925, the school only offered graduate work that led to doctorate degrees in engineering, chemistry, and physics. Then, degree and course offerings expanded swiftly. Geology was added in 1925, aeronautics in 1926, and biology and mathematics in 1928 (Goldstein, 1998). With a highly-successful visiting-scholars program, Caltech netted the cream of the crop scientists of the day in physics. These include Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, and Erwin Schrödinger, among others. This did not only put physics in the limelight in southern California, but it also brought attention and a great reputation coming towards Caltech’s way.
Just as the First World War had shaped Caltech, World War II did the same. After the Second World War, Caltech had two men at its helm. Physicists Lee Alvin DuBridge and Robert Bacher led the institution into another glorious era like the original trio of Hale, Noyes, and Millikan did in theirs (Goldstein, 1998).
DuBridge, the head of MIT’s wartime radar project, became Caltech’s president in 1946. Bacher, one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project’s P (Physics) division and later G (Gadgets) division, came in 1949 to become the head of Caltech’s Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy. Later, DuBridge became Caltech’s first provost (Goldstein, 1998).
Under DuBridge’s service, from 1946 to 1969, the teaching faculty of the institution doubled. The campus size tripled. New research fields began to take off, ranging from chemical biology to geochemistry (Goldstein, 1998). His tenure also witnessed the dedication of a new 200-inch Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain in 1948, the world’s most powerful telescope for over 40 years.
During this era, theoretical physics did not just remain to be Caltech’s stepchild as it was in the time of Millikan. Under DuBridge, theoretical physics entered a golden age. This is in part due to DuBridge’s acquisition of the services of Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann (Goldstein, 1998).
Gell-Mann became the youngest full professor in Caltech’s history at age 30. This is within a year of his arrival in 1955. He ended up staying in Caltech for 38 years, until his retirement in 1993. He received the 1969 Nobel Prize for Physics for his contributions to the theory of elementary particles (Caltech, 2016). Feynman, the famous popularizer of physics, became a professor of physics from 1951 until his death in 1988. During his tenure, he was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics for his famous diagrams together with S. I. Tomonaga and J. Schwinger.
Gell-Mann and Feynman were surely two of the best and brightest that have graced the halls of Caltech. But since its inception as Throop University, it has produced 132 National Academies Memberships and 13 National Medal Technology and Innovation Recipients. Also, 58 of Caltech’s faculty and alumni have received the National Medal of Science. More impressively, 39 of its faculty and alumni became Nobel Laureates (Caltech, 2020).
Other famous Caltech figures include Paul MacCready, the father of human-powered flight, Frank Capra, the award-winning director and a graduate of Throop College of Technology with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering in 1918, and Kip S. Thorne, the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics Awardee for his work on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).
Caltech’s rich history and colorful heritage made it what it is today. It proved that it can be an institution at the center stage of science, discovery, and innovation.
Caltech today has gone far from its vocational roots. Largely considered to be at the precipice of scientific research and education worldwide, the institution prides itself with “investigating the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere (Caltech, 2020a).” The institute keeps itself small to focus on its research activities, “prizing excellence and ambition.” With this approach, it has only about 24,000 living alumni in the United States and around the world today.
It is also one of the hardest institutions to get into with an acceptance rate of only 8% in 2018 (Forbes, 2020). The application is very selective and tons of applications get rejected every year. Many factors play a part, academic and research performance play a big role. However, the size and design of the campus play a big part too as it has a smaller capacity than other top universities.
In the school year 2019 to 2020, Caltech has only 1,299 graduate students and 938 undergraduate students (Caltech, 2020). Also, 99% of them are in the top tenth of their high school graduating class. For the class of 2023, 56% are male and 44% are female and out of 8,367 applicants, only 235 freshmen members were selected.
It is not only hard getting admitted. The price of tuition also presents a high barrier to entry. Add to that the fact that America has a crisis when it comes to the affordability of higher education (Broton & Goldrick-Rab, 2016). Thus, students rely on scholarships, grants, or financial aid to cover tuition and other expenses (Lundy & Curran, 2020).
In 2019, the net price for a Caltech education was $24,245 (Cobo et al., 2019). For the 2020-21 school year, the ninth-month, full-time cost of attendance budget for Caltech undergraduate is $77,178.
Source: Caltech, 2020
However, according to reports, 53% of Caltech’s student body receives need-based assistance with an average package of $51,318 (Caltech, 2020). Financial aids have three main types: grants and scholarships, work-study, and loans. Because of such aids, students can get their initial educational investment down significantly.
The class of 2018 has an average indebtedness of $16,337. For perspective, however, consider that the median salary of Caltech alums is $151,600 (Forbes, 2020). According to 2017 to 2018 data, 72% of the student body received aid, with 96% of the student body aged 18 to 24.
Last year, Caltech was ranked as the 8th-best college in the United States by Forbes with a net price of $24,245. The average student debt was recorded at $5,988 (Cobo et al., 2019).
The science-heavy style of Caltech education is in great demand. According to Kelly and Knowles (2016), educational systems and policy-makers worldwide have been “preoccupied with advancing competencies in the STEM domains.” Moving towards the more technology-filled future, STEM proficiency is required of citizens and the workforce. A Caltech education answers the call for this.
Caltech is famed for its rich research heritage. Over the course of its existence, the school has helped launched new fields, invented technologies, and produced breakthroughs. With six academic divisions, ranging from Chemistry and Chemical Engineering to the Humanities and Social Sciences, Caltech is bravely moving forward in the quest to understand our world better. Around 90% of Caltech undergraduates participate in research (Caltech, 2020b). Incorporating research into education is a Caltech trademark shared only by top-notch universities.
Today, Caltech has five NASA facilities on campus with more than 50 research centers and institutes (Caltech, 2020b). These include the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the leading U.S. center for robotic exploration of our solar system. Researchers and technicians in the Caltech campus and the JPL work together in missions in Earth science, planetary exploration, and space-based astronomy. With five NASA facilities within campus, students and faculty can immerse themselves in the cutting-edge research in the physical sciences.
Caltech is also active in research when it comes to humanities. Research areas include social science history, scientific philosophy, literature and history, and the origins and foundations of science (Caltech, 2020c). With Caltech’s huge involvement in the development of the thoughts and technology surrounding science, it has become a fertile ground for research when it comes to understanding the philosophical issues and logic behind scientific reasoning throughout our history.
Social science research is also very lively at Caltech. With research areas spanning from social and decision neuroscience to applied microeconomics, Caltech researchers use quantitative, qualitative, and analytical techniques, including mathematical models to understand what drives human behavior in the context of groups (Caltech, 2020c). Investigations in these areas span from market to non-market decision-making, policies, trends, and behaviors.
Caltech research and education are what Jora and colleagues (2020) describe. Caltech does not only rigidly preserve knowledge but it also allows for flexible rediscovery. This is done by discerning the valuable ideas of previous scholars while exploring new views. This sets the stage for collaborative discovery, deep reflection, and scientific innovations with peers.
Students at Caltech are groomed to be world leaders in science, public service, academia, industry, and engineering (Caltech, 2020d). They are trained to be able to identify, analyze, and solve difficult problems in their fields. More tellingly, they are expected to efficiently apply and communicate their ideas.
The institution has a 3:1 student-faculty ratio with more than 300 professorial faculty in service. There are 28 and 30 options for undergraduate and graduate students, respectively. The 28 options for majors that undergraduates have spanned across six academic divisions.
Caltech education is known for having a rigorous curriculum. Students also work collaboratively with faculty and in small class sizes. Working towards their undergraduate and graduate degrees, they get to collaborate with intellectual equals and mentors. Moreover, the academic environment in Caltech emphasizes interdisciplinary teamwork, critical thinking, and mutual support. Students are required to have a deep understanding of principles and core concepts across fields (Caltech, 2020d).
The interdisciplinary approach is an important emphasis in Caltech as the contemporary nature of research requires it. Thus, students’ aptitude is not just built around their core area of study and research, but they are also required to have a good depth of exposure to basic science, math, humanities, and the social sciences (Caltech, 2020d). Also, the institution aims for the following educational outcomes:
Throughout Caltech’s existence, breakthroughs and innovations achieved within its halls have filtered out to society as useful products and services. It has been in Caltech’s culture that students and even outside parties are encouraged to contribute via entrepreneurial innovations. The arm responsible for this is the Office of Technology Transfer & Corporate Partnerships (OTTCP).
OTTCP was first called OTT when it was established in 1995. In 2013, it merged with the Office of Corporate Relations and formed the Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships.
The OTTCP was created to facilitate and manage the transfers of technology created by Caltech and JPL scientists and engineers to the commercial sector. It is also charged with establishing and maintaining Caltech’s corporate partnerships to support collaborative breakthroughs (Caltech, 2020e). Its activities include the following:
Since the establishment of the office, it has guided researchers through building more than 130 new companies. This is at an average rage of eight startups every year (Caltech, 2020e). With this, around 1,800 active U.S. patents have been issued for Caltech. Today, Caltech, through the OTTCP, averages about 120 issued patents every year.
Popular and impactful active startups hatched at Caltech include:
For those opting to live within the Caltech campus, the college experience will likely be colorful. The Caltech campus experience, sans academics and research, revolves around its unique House System that draws inspiration from the residential college system of Cambridge and Oxford in England. Moreover, the Caltech vs. MIT rivalry may also put a fun twist on campus life through hilarious pranks done against its rival school. In this section, we will briefly give you a picture of what Caltech campus life can be.
This, perhaps, is, the defining feature of Caltech campus life for undergraduates besides their education and research goals. In order to be assigned their House, freshmen go through what is called the Rotation where they get to know all the undergraduate Houses for two weeks (Caltech, 2020f). Within rotation, they will get to know the eight Houses and the upperclassmen residing therein.
After two weeks, both freshmen and upperclassmen give their ratings of the House and of the freshmen, respectively. Then the selection process begins and, hopefully, incoming freshmen are placed at the House that matches these preferences. The selection process varies among Houses. The House System was established in 1931 as it disbanded the existing fraternities and recast them as Houses.
Caltech Houses can be full of fun for undergraduates. They can serve as places for social activities and they have a long history with pranks. Pranks are a big part of Caltech culture. In particular, the greatest ones are displayed on the Institute’s website.
One of the best ones Caltech undergrads ever pulled was in the 1961 Rose Bowl game. A group of students from the Lloyd house “hacked” a detailed system of cheers created by the Washington Husky cheerleaders. The system involves the cheerleaders calling out a number signaling people in the stands to hold up certain cards that display a message or some pattern. Caltech students replaced the instruction cards to plant a message that unsuspecting Washington fans are to hold up. Near the end of the game, the name Caltech was held up causing shock and giving the school more notoriety.
In 1987, Hollywood, California was to turn 100 years old. Caltech students from the Page and Ricketts houses worked together to pull a grand scheme. On the dead of night, they changed the world-famous Hollywood sign to display Caltech using black and white plastic. This was a prank that the younger ones will call “epic.”
Pranks like these are also common against Caltech’s rival, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). On the other hand, Caltech has also been at the other end of these hilarious pranks.
Even though both schools are located at different coasts, the Caltech vs. MIT rivalry is active, not just in the academics and research departments. It is also very lively when it comes to hilarious pranks. And by being two “Institutes of Technology,” it makes it easier for each to “other” the other. The rivalry, even heated at times, is in good fun and (mostly) in the spirit of good competition.
These two Institutes have consistently ranked high among the world’s universities. The rivalry comes with the territory.
In the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2020, Caltech is ranked 2nd in the world while MIT is fifth. Caltech scored 92.1 out of 100 in teaching while MIT had 90.5. For research, Caltech also has the lead on MIT with a score of 97.2. In other rankings, Caltech falls behind MIT.
Source: Times Higher Education, 2020
For instance, the rival ranking system QS World University Ranking 2020, MIT gets first place while Caltech sits at number five. In this ranking system, MIT’s overall score beats Caltech with a 100 against 96.9. Caltech only ranked higher in one indicator over MIT. This is in the “citations per faculty” indicator with a score of 100 against MIT’s 99.8.
Whichever ranking system you prefer, there is no doubt that the Caltech vs. MIT rivalry is a close one. Given the history that Noyes, a former MIT president, moved to Caltech and helped the institution close the chasm between its then-humble offerings and that of MIT’s, the rivalry was already etched in the early days. If you are from Caltech or MIT, the historical narrative of this rivalry courses through you.
And with rivalry comes pranks.
One famous prank done by Caltech students against MIT involved handing out 400 T-shirts packaged in a way where “MIT” is visible on the front. But at the back, it wrote “because not everybody can go to Caltech” with a drawing of a palm tree hidden from the way it was packed. This was at MIT’s 2005 Campus Preview Weekend for prospective freshmen. Another prank pulled during this event was an inscription of “That Other Institute of Technology” instead of “Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” In response, MIT students pulled the remarkable Flemming Cannon Heist, relocating the iconic Caltech cannon to Cambridge the next year.
First off, it is really hard to get into Caltech for two reasons: the stringent selection process and the carrying capacity of a smaller campus. But if you want to test your luck or you are already accepted, then you can never go wrong with a Caltech education. With an atmosphere for collaborative learning and research laced with good old college fun, Caltech students are trained to thrive in high-pressure environments in the marketplace, government administrations, and in scientific research.
Even though Caltech has a good standing among other universities in terms of education and research in the humanities and social sciences, it is known for its strength in the physical sciences and engineering. Even its liberal arts programs and research are entangled with the methodologies, techniques, and philosophical assumptions of the physical sciences. But this not really a crutch, as a STEM-based or STEM-literate education is highly-valued today and had been becoming more and more popular in recent years (Donmez & Tasar, 2020).
Also, if you envision yourself going into entrepreneurship, Caltech is a good fit for you. Its Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships will help guide you through the process of putting your breakthrough technologies and innovation on the market.
Its housing system and the camaraderie it espouses is also good in making connections, collaborations, and learning how to work with a diverse set of people. If your education is successful in terms of Caltech’s Institutional Learning Outcomes, then you will likely be ready for any role you will take once you are out of the Institute. Graduating from Caltech will make you a part of a small elite class of humans who are trained to be world leaders in their particular fields.