Thanks to the collective efforts and advocacy of students, faculty, and staff, Caltech is poised to welcome its most diverse undergraduate and graduate student cohorts when the academic year begins this fall.
At the undergraduate level, Caltech saw a 74 percent increase in the number of applications submitted by historically minoritized students (these include those who are Black or African American, Latino or Latinx, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander) compared to 2020. Among students who have committed to enrolling in the fall, about 41 percent self-identify as coming from historically minoritized groups. That figure includes 33 Black or African American students (including those who self-identify as belonging to more than one racial/ethnic category), a record for the Institute.
At the graduate level, meanwhile, women account for 39 percent of incoming students. Historically minoritized students, including 21 who identify as Black or African American, account for 18 percent. Both figures represent all-time highs.
"As a community, we have taken an important step forward," President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics, wrote in a message to the campus community. "Insight and leadership from students, tireless work of staff and faculty, and both divisional and centrally supported programmatic innovations were vital to our success in attracting exceptional scholars to Caltech. The progress we have achieved as a community is gratifying, but it is only the first step in a concerted, long-term effort."
Progress in recruitment and admissions comes nearly a year after Caltech committed to concrete measures to enhance diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility, and has been credited, in part, to new and expanded programs, practices, and partnerships.
To select the class of undergraduates who will arrive at the Institute this fall, Caltech's Undergraduate Admissions Office reviewed 13,026 applications, a 62 percent increase over the previous year.
Of the students who were admitted, 54 percent accepted Caltech's offer; this so-called yield rate had not been above 50 percent since before 1989. In addition, the number of students from historically minoritized groups who have enrolled at the Institute more than doubled from a year ago.
The incoming class is also socioeconomically diverse. This year, Caltech enrolled a record number of Pell Grant recipients (students who receive federal grants for education based on financial need) and 46 QuestBridge students (including 25 from the National College Match program). QuestBridge is a national nonprofit that connects high-achieving low-income students to four-year scholarships at leading colleges and universities.
Also of note is that 17 percent of incoming students will be the first in their family to earn a college degree, another high for Caltech.
But numbers alone do not tell the full story, notes Nikki Chun, director of undergraduate admissions. The real story, she says, is about people: the students preparing to join Caltech and the current community members who worked together to bring them to campus.
"It really takes an entire campus to enroll a class, and this year that philosophy rang truer than ever," says Chun, who credits this year's successful recruitment effort to members of the Freshman Admissions Committee, the Upperclass Admissions Committee, and the Interhouse Committee; Caltech Admissions Ambassadors; staff from Financial Aid, the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity, Caltech Dining Services, Athletics, the Office of Residential Experience, the International Students Program, SURF, the Caltech Y, Career Advising and Experiential Learning, and the Registrar's Office; and the parents of current Caltech students.
"It really takes an entire campus to enroll a class, and this year that philosophy rang truer than ever."
Director of Undergraduate Admissions
Encouraging candidates to accept Caltech's offer of admission was a primary focus, admissions leaders said. After all, the Institute admits the kinds of students who receive offers from top schools across the country; with so many schools to choose from, it's important to be sure that Caltech's advantages, including its small size, are clear from the start.
"We leverage our intimate size in our philosophy of programming for potential and accepted students," Chun says. "We think about how we can do individualization, personalization, how we can make sure students feel seen by us. All of that is a reflection of the experience they will have here."
Karla Arriaga, senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions, typically spearheads an on-campus, in-person Prefrosh Experience to help admitted students decide whether Caltech is the right place for them. In 2020, the program had to be quickly transformed into an online experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Arriaga says, she had the ability to be more thoughtful about the program's goals. She and her team focused their efforts around the student experience, promoting student-to-student interactions between current and admitted students, and providing each admitted student with "personalized communications from the day they received their admission to the May 3 reply deadline and beyond," she says.
"Going virtual actually allowed us to have a wider reach, as we were able to connect with more students than we would typically connect with during an in-person event," Arriaga notes. "To a certain extent, this also allowed us to offer more equitable opportunities by leveling the playing field for all students. We know that visiting campus is not possible for all students, especially those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, so we made sure to bring campus to them."
Chun adds that addressing students' financial needs has played an important role in bringing together a diverse class. "People are feeling the economic decision around the cost of education in such a different way since the pandemic began," she notes.
Sometimes, Chun says, what seem to be the smallest of touches make a significant impact. For instance, many undergraduates who accepted Caltech's offer talked about the snack packs that Caltech Dining Services created for admitted students, allowing them to customize from a "menu" of options that included snacks, shirts, stickers, and more. The students said those packs helped create a sense of belonging to the Caltech community.
"Since arriving here in the fall of 2010, it has been my persistent goal and passion to create a more equity-based, diverse, and inclusive community with such expectations at the core of what we do in undergraduate admissions," says Jarrid Whitney (Six Nations Cayuga), assistant vice president for student affairs, enrollment, and career services. "And we're fortunate to work closely with the faculty and students on the First-Year and Upperclass (Transfer) Admissions committees to make that a reality. This year's amazing results are a culmination of over a decade of intentional work, and there's still more to do."
The Institute has made similar progress in attracting science and engineering graduate students from diverse backgrounds. In 2019, 22 students from historically minoritized communities—at the time a record number—matriculated into Caltech graduate programs. Among the incoming class of 2021, that number grew to 53, representing 18 percent of the total graduate student body and 31 percent of domestic graduate students.
This progress has been attributed to programs and initiatives designed, on the one hand, to expand the applicant pool by ensuring individuals from all backgrounds see Caltech as an option for pursuing graduate studies and, on the other, to encourage admitted students to choose Caltech:
- FUTURE Ignited: Nearly 200 undergraduates from more than 120 colleges and universities across the country joined Caltech for a virtual conference that encouraged students of color to pursue graduate studies in science and engineering. More than 70 faculty, staff, postdoc, and student volunteers from Caltech's divisions of Biology and Biological Engineering (BBE); Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE); Engineering and Applied Science (EAS); Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS); and Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA) led the event.
- WAVE: Launched in 2015, WAVE is a 10-week summer program in which undergraduates from historically minoritized communities conduct research with a Caltech faculty member while also receiving support and guidance from current graduate students. With financial support from campus research centers, divisions, and institutes committed to expanding the program, Caltech has more than tripled the number of WAVE students it is hosting this year—and will host in years to come—making graduate programs more visible and accessible to students who might not otherwise be familiar with the Institute. The expansion of WAVE came as a direct result of advocacy by the Black Scientists and Engineers of Caltech, a student-led organization.
- Caltech Shines: The inaugural Caltech Shines event, held in April, drew more than 120 admitted graduate students who participated in question-and-answer sessions with representatives from BBE and CCE, affinity and identity groups, and a number of campus offices. The goal was to provide admitted students with information on the support and resources available at Caltech, and to foster a sense of community.
"With a lot of diversity-centered initiatives, the way things work is that you—the person who is pushing for change—are normally planting the seeds of a tree," says Daniel Mukasa, incoming BSEC president and a graduate student in materials science. "That tree will grow, and years down the line you will see the fruit. In my experience, it's never been the case that you plant the seeds and see the fruits so quickly. But our push has made it so that I'm going to be able to enjoy a more diverse graduate class as soon as next year."
He adds that BSEC and other student organizations already are planning events and activities to ensure new students feel a sense of community when they arrive this fall.
"In my experience, it's never been the case that you plant the seeds and see the fruits so quickly. But our push has made it so that I'm going to be able to enjoy a more diverse graduate class as soon as next year."
Incoming BSEC President and graduate student in materials science
Mukasa and other leaders note that while success should be celebrated, continued attention is necessary to sustain it.
"At the institutional level, if we're going to make lasting change, we need consistency and to ensure that essential resources are in place," says Bil Clemons, professor of biochemistry and chair of the President's Diversity Council. "We must also continue learning."
To that end, this past spring, the Advisory Committee on Student Admissions and Recruitment, appointed by Rosenbaum, released a report outlining 11 recommendations to help Caltech expand progress in recruiting graduate students from historically minoritized backgrounds.
The committee, chaired by Tim Colonius, Caltech's Frank and Ora Lee Marble Professor of Mechanical Engineering, determined that improving diversity in recruitment and admissions must be a continuous and evolving process.
Committee members also concluded that providing holistic support for students is an essential component in advancing recruitment goals.
"The success and diversification of our recruitment efforts is predicated on Caltech being a desirable community for diverse young scholars, both in terms of opportunities for professional growth and in terms of quality of life, standard of living, and [diversity, equity, and inclusion,]" members wrote.
To help enhance professional and academic opportunities for students, postdocs, and early-career faculty, Caltech recently sought membership in the Leadership Alliance, a consortium of more than 30 institutions—including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs)—founded in 1992. The consortium provides mentoring and other support to scholars at all stages of their path in academia.
The Institute's application to join the alliance was approved this spring, and future opportunities include summer research programs for undergraduates, career development workshops for graduate students and postdocs, and grant-writing coaching for faculty.
"Another important aspect of Caltech's membership in the Leadership Alliance is the opportunity to build stronger relationships with schools we want to work with, especially HBCUs and HSIs," explains Candace Rypisi, assistant vice provost and director of Student-Faculty Programs (SFP).
Cynthia Alarcón, program coordinator in SFP, participated in Leadership Alliance programs while an undergraduate at Cal State Los Angeles and says the experience helped shape the trajectory of her career.
"My Leadership Alliance internship enabled me to visualize myself as a graduate student and equipped me with the skills and confidence to pursue research at the graduate level," recalls Alarcón, who went on to earn a master's degree at the University of Texas at Austin. "I learned new technical skills and how to effectively communicate my research. I also built a network of faculty and peers who have continued to support me years later."
Written by Jennifer Torres and Lori Oliwenstein