Jarrid Whitney, California Institute of Technology

Jarrid Whitney, Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at California Institute of Technology, joins us this month to answer five questions about college admissions and the private research university more commonly known as Caltech.

Located in Pasadena, Caltech is home to just over 2,200 students in both the undergraduate and graduate schools, but it's an intellectual powerhouse -- with 31 faculty members or alumni having won the Nobel Prize and 66 having been awarded National Medals of Science or Technology. The 124-acre campus that lies just over 10 miles outside Los Angeles has a rich history as the former home of physicists Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman, the place where the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory began, and the current respository for the literary estate of Albert Einstein, the Einstein Papers Project.

But it's not all rocket science at Caltech, it also apparently has a rich tradition of pranks and practical jokes...  For that you'll have to do your own research -- for now, take advantage of the executive director of admissions' take on this SoCal college.

What kind of student does well at Caltech? How would you describe the student body?  What would you most want an applicant to the school to know?

If a prospective student has a passion for math, science, or engineering, Caltech is one of the best places in the world to study.  Our faculty are first-rate guides to the frontiers of knowledge.  Our core curriculum will turn every student into a scientist or engineer of unusual depth and breadth.  The wealth of research opportunities will give each student a good feel for what a research career is like—before they even get to grad school.  And our Honor System will let students experience all these things in an atmosphere of trust and collegiality that's rare in today's competitive world.

Undergrad life tends to revolve around Caltech's distinctive student Houses, where students eat, study, and socialize together.  And though it's true that “Techers” work hard, studying is certainly not all there is to Tech life!  While they are by definition passionate scientists or engineers, Techers also have a surprisingly wide range of other passions: music, art, drama, community service, cooking, and sports.  Nearly 30% of our undergraduates have participated on an intercollegiate athletics team.  More than 150 clubs offer opportunities to get involved in campus life, as do organizations like the Center for Diversity and the Caltech Y.  Whatever your interest, there's probably a group of Techers who share it.  This place is quite busy despite a population of around 950 undergraduates.

Ultimately, prospective students who are actively involved in scientific inquiry and have shown a demonstrated interest in STEM fields while still in high school will be highly considered.  Yes, academic performance is also critical but it is the intangibles that make students stand out in our process before they, too, can become Techers.

How do you read applications? Does every application get read by the admission office at CalTech?

There are a lot of numbers and formulas at Caltech - but not in the Admissions Office. The decision-making process is much more of an art than a science here.  There are no formulas that assure success or automatic cutoffs for any criteria that we might consider.  Every application submitted for admission to Caltech is first evaluated by the admissions officer in charge of an applicant’s territory to get a good sense of the applicant and whether they would be a good fit for the Caltech community.

The second reader of an application file can be either another admissions officer (including myself), or a faculty member who sits on our admissions committee. Although faculty are not able to read every application, their insight and guidance is critical as we form our class.

Ultimately decisions are made by an admissions committee after all aspects of every applicant are thoughtfully reviewed at least twice, in the context of their personal and educational background, and within the context of our highly selective applicant pool.

 What is your favorite thing about Caltech?

There are two favorite things that come to mind -- a physical spot on campus and a virtual place online. When I was interviewing for my position, I did what most people would do and that was to read the highlights of Caltech’s website.  I have to admit that I have been very fortunate to have worked at some other incredible places.  But when I started reading Caltech’s home page, every day there were new postings of scientific advancements and ground-breaking discoveries coming from this “small” community.  It was, and still is, exciting just to read what members of our community are doing in the pursuit of knowledge and innovation.

The spot on campus I love the most is the pond in Throop Memorial Garden, a modest little area of water at the bottom of a switch-back waterfall coming from Millikan Library’s reflective pool.  When I first started working at Caltech, my family and I were in a temporary home that bordered the south end of campus.  Every day before work I would take my infant daughter, by stroller, to her day-care facility on the north end of campus and pass Throop Pond on my way there.  And every day we would stop for a few minutes and watch the many curious turtle heads popping up for a quick glance, the koi constantly looking for food, or the quacking ducks busily washing themselves.  Even though my current path to work is no longer in that direction, I often make sure to take that route when I have a meeting across campus.  And I always smile as I walk by this tranquil spot somewhat hidden amongst the very active minds of our community.

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, can you tell us about a time in college when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?

My “aha” diversity moment actually came just before I started at Cornell University.  I was selected to participate in a six-week pre-freshman program for underrepresented students.  Although that program opened my eyes to many types of diversity I hadn’t experienced before, it was a doctor’s appointment that shook me the most that summer.

In preparation to join the Cornell wrestling team, I was instructed by my coach that I needed a physical before I could start training.  So I went to a nearby health clinic, put on the ceremonial hospital robe, and waited on a cold bench for the doctor to start the physical.  As he approached me with my historical chart I had filled out moments ago, he quickly scanned the document to see if there was anything of note to further inquire about.  When he got to the ethnic/racial section of my chart, he paused, looked at me, and chuckled as he said; “You’re Native American? That must be how you got into Cornell!”  Needless to say, that crushed me immediately -- even if my outward emotions didn’t reflect so.

When I got back to campus, surrounded by 145 other pre-frosh students, I engaged in a lot of dialogue with my new friends about how we were even admitted to such a prestigious school.  Was I selected because my Mom was a full-blooded Iroquois who herself grew up on a reservation?  Was it because neither of my parents went to college as they had my older brother when they were still in high school?  It took me some time before I fully understood that it was much more than my background that gained me a spot in that school.  Although affirmative action might have played a part, I would have never been admitted if my academic profile, recommendation letters, extracurricular involvement, and all other aspects of my application were not on par with the other competitive applicants.

Given the rising costs of private higher education, how can families afford a place like Caltech?

At Caltech, we are committed to making our education accessible to all students who gain admission. Our nationally recognized need-based financial aid program has been highlighted by several leading publications for making this one of the most affordable institutions in the country.

Notable characteristics of Caltech's financial aid program include:

  • Need-blind admissions consideration for all US Citizens and Permanent Residents.  The Admissions Committee does not look at a family’s ability to pay in determining whether or not to admit.
  • Financial aid awards meet 100% of demonstrated need.  Merit aid is not offered.
  • Substantial need-based financial aid for international freshmen.
  • Financial aid awards with comparatively modest levels of student loans and work-study.

Typically the first question families ask me relates to our definition of “need.”  Need is the difference between the annual cost of attending Caltech (roughly $54K in 2011-12) and the amount the student and parents can reasonably be expected to contribute toward that cost.  Caltech's estimate of a family's ability to contribute is determined each year in accordance with policies established nationally by the U.S. Department of Education and the College Scholarship Service (CSS).  These policies and procedures take into account college expenses, the financial resources of the student and family, other family members in college, etc.

If a student does qualify for need-based assistance, we strive to keep the work- study allowance and student loans to manageable levels, so that the academic aspirations of our students are not impacted.  In fact the average total indebtedness for the class of 2011 was $13,442 for four years of education.  This total is amongst the lowest in the country where the national average for all private schools is around $26,000.

On average, between 53% - 58% of Caltech undergraduate students receive need-based financial assistance.  Caltech's average undergraduate need-based financial aid package for the 2010-2011 academic year was $34,928, with average need-based scholarships being $31,030.

If a family is still unsure of whether to apply given the concerns with financing, we encourage them to use our “Net Price Calculator” found on our Financial Aid website, which provides an early approximation of what a new first-year, domestic, undergraduate student can expect to pay at attend Caltech.  Please note that even though the results provided from this calculator are only an estimate and do not guarantee the actual financial aid one might receive, the result can certainly help families gauge affordability earlier in the process.

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