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2018-19 Academic Year Welcome

September 30, 2018

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President, 
           Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: September 17, 2018
Re: 2018-19 Academic Year Welcome

As we start the new academic year, national debates swirl around the relationship of higher education to society. These issues center on two areas: taxes and undergraduate admissions. With last year's changes to the tax law, endowment gains at select universities, either those with very large endowments or those with very small student bodies like Caltech, are suddenly taxable. Additionally, admissions criteria at selective universities, most notably Harvard, are being tested in the courts. What do these high-profile matters mean for the country, for the Institute, and, perhaps most keenly, for our beliefs and actions as members of a very special university community?

My own conversations on Capitol Hill make clear that we are not making an effective case in many parts of the country for the value of a college education. Cost is a widespread concern, a concern that we share. In fact, the foremost use of endowment payout at Caltech is for student financial aid. We and our peers strive to make college education a reality for students independent of their ability to pay.

These commitments are woven into Caltech's fabric, but the facts themselves are not sufficient. As members of the Caltech community, we need to make known across the land the case for access and affordability to help secure the future of discovery. There is urgency for this message, because the change in the law represents the sundering of a long-standing social compact. Universities have been tax-exempt because we contribute to our country by educating its citizens and by creating knowledge for the benefit of society. That this understanding no longer obtains should be a concern to all of us who believe in the power of education to strengthen democracy.

The lawsuit against Harvard by Asian-American plaintiffs raises difficult questions regarding equitable treatment and fairness in undergraduate admissions, access, merit, and the elements of an effective learning experience. The composition of the undergraduate body at Caltech looks different than our peers, including Harvard. This reflects a considered approach to the admissions selection process that is guided by the following principles:

  • Our selection criteria are first and foremost based on the highest standards of academic excellence. We consider each and every applicant individually and holistically, taking into account their entire portfolio of achievements.
  • Caltech does not give preference or place quotas on any group or class of individuals, nor does it grant sports scholarships or consider legacy preferences in the admissions process.
  • Diversity is a strategy to achieve excellence. Talent is blind, and our aim is to attract gifted students whatever their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, national origin, or other such characteristics.  
  • Diversity allows students to be exposed to many different experiences and to learn from each other during their time at Caltech. This is especially important given our small and interactive classes.
  • The Institute is fully committed to making its degree programs financially accessible. Through a need-blind admissions process, students are admitted to Caltech regardless of their financial means, and then once admitted, students are provided sufficient financial aid to meet 100% of their demonstrated financial need.

We set our standards high, we cast our net wide, and we provide the support that allows the members of our community to succeed. Our newest matriculants, the 233 talented undergraduates of the Class of 2022, represent 34 US states and 15 foreign countries. They will be called upon to challenge themselves and each other. Together, we are all called upon to contribute to an intellectual environment where bold ideas are shaped and honed by rigorous arguments from diverse perspectives.

There is an old Spanish proverb that if a book falls from a high shelf and hits you on the head and makes an empty sound, then it may not be the fault of the book! Caltech classes start today. May we be full of ideas, in touch with our ideals, and open to arguments that lead to revelations.