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“partners,” plus 32 more who
will join them as freshmen
next fall), there are 12 Asians,
five Hispanics and one African
As Olin students and
faculty fell into a routine, a
supermarket-style newsletter
began to circulate called
OVAL, for “oddly verifiable
approximations and leaks”—
more engineering humor. It
predicted that “the official
opening of Olin College will
prompt an earthquake that
will cause large cracks in the
engineering education establishment. There will be no serious
injuries, only a few bruised egos.”
The first of a succession of five-week “modules” began
next. It included the start of work to design the curriculum,
plus student-faculty research projects and something called
the Olin Challenge—the idea of a professor who believes in
hands-on collaboration as an integral part of engineering
education. The professor wanted the group to build the
world’s smallest working bicycle; the students overruled him,
pointing out it would be hard for more than just a few of them
to take part in creating something so tiny. They chose instead
to build the world’s biggest Rube Goldberg device, designed
to hit the snooze button on an alarm clock in 130 steps; the
previous record was 113 steps. In the end, the project became
a lesson not only in collaboration, but inMurphy’s Law, when
only 124 of the 130 steps actually worked.
Construction of the campus, on the other hand, was going
smoothly, helped by unseasonably warmweather. When
completed, the distinctive collection of buildings on a hilltop
will have 500,000 square feet of space, with 27 fully networked
labs and classrooms. Each seat will have data and power ports,
and two of the classrooms and most of the labs will have
complete computer workstations for every student. Dorm
rooms will be doubles with private baths and connections for
power and cable television, telephone and data, plus fiber-
optic outlets at each desk.
About 300,000 square feet will be completed in the
long-awaited first phase, now scheduled to be finished this
summer, including dormitory space for 195 students. It
will take ten years for the school to reach its planned final
enrollment of 600 to 650 students.
Olin College had 38 faculty and staff late last fall, but was
There will be no academic
departments. There is no
tenure. And Olin doesn’t
charge tuition; each
accepted student will receive
a full four-year scholarship
covering tuition and
Olin College
April 2009
he plans for Olin College were ambitious from the start,
anticipating a student body that would grow from an initial class
of 32 tomore 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 fromboth 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 nowwe 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
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
Because Olin College
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.