Hard to get in, harder to find

May 4, 2001

Barely one in 20 applicants has been accepted for Olin College of Engineering in the autumn, making it one of the most difficult schools in America to enter. This is an impressive performance considering that it does not yet exist.

Olin is a massive and expensive experiment meant to hasten the reform of engineering education in the United States.

The first students will arrive on the campus, near Boston, in late August. They will serve apprenticeships with local engineering companies, perform community service and help to devise a curriculum from scratch. Classes will not begin formally until autumn 2002.

The students were chosen from among 664 applicants attracted to the school by a promotional campaign that used the genre of 1950s horror movie posters to advertise "The college that doesn't exist".

"We have no alumni network, no campus, no track record," said Joe Hunter, spokesman for the school. "There are going to be challenges. Failure is a possibility, if a remote one."

The school is backed by the wealthy Olin Foundation, which has pledged $200 million (about £139 million) towards its construction and $500 million for an endowment. This will allow the school to offer free tuition to students.

Other innovations include having no academic departments and no faculty tenure.

The engineering students will have a strong base of liberal arts courses, and will be encouraged to pursue extracurricular interests such as music and art.

These approaches have been recommended by the National Science Foundation, accrediting agencies, and others since the end of the cold war. But existing engineering schools have been slow to adopt them.

"Major business leaders have been asking for changes in what engineering grads know when they leave school," said Richard Miller, president of Olin and former dean of engineering at the University of Iowa.

"And they're making progress, but the progress is really slow. It has been disappointing."

The emphasis on liberal arts and culture is intentional, he said. Many applicants had impeccable academic scores, but those accepted at Olin were chosen because they also had other strengths.

"They needed to be leaders. They needed to be self-starters," Mr Hunter said. "We're trying to avoid the stereotypical computer geek kind of student that goes into engineering."

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