I recently dropped my youngest daughter off for her first year of college. She wants to go into Bio-engineering and so after looking at a number of schools, she selected Harvey Mudd. I'm a graduate of the University of Colorado which has a very good Physics department (my major) and so when we arrived there last week I was expecting something similar. Boy was I wrong.
Harvey Mudd is an environment where every facet of the school, faculty, and students is a world built for and populated by scientists and engineers. It's a natural fit that has an subconscious pull for the students that this is where they belong. That here they are with their people. This singularity of purpose combined with a culture and staff that bring out the best in the students make it a phenomenal environment.
So what makes Mudd so good? First is that singular focus so that the school's culture matches the students. I think you get this at Caltech and MIT, the top art schools, and other singular focus schools. That makes a gigantic difference from a school like C.U. which, while it has a superb Physics faculty, is in a much more general environment. But I think there is more to it than that.
Second, Mudd has no graduate school. So the students are taught by the faculty, not by grad students. This also means they attract and hire professors based on their teaching ability, while most top schools put primacy on their research efforts. The professor teaching a class at Mudd actually teaches that class.
Third is the size. Mudd has under 800 students. So the freshman class is under 200 students. You know your fellow students. The professors know every student. At a parent Q&A one mom asked about her son balancing playing on the varsity CMS (Claremont/Mudd/Scripps) baseball team with schoolwork and the assistant academic dean replies "is your son Ray?" He is the one Mudd student on the team and they had already worked to get all his classes in the morning. At Mudd it's not that you can get personal attention, it's that you will.
Fourth is the honor code. They are very serious about it and that has ramifications way beyond the direct points. When they give students closed book timed tests to take in their dorm room, that is forcing the students to act with integrity in everything they do. It lets the school give the students 24 hour access to all labs so they can work at any time on anything they find of interest. It means they can be open to any pranks the students come up with a high level of confidence that it won't go too far. And more than anything else, it instills a level of trust between the students.
So how's it working out so far? Our daughter has been so busy that she's had time for one quick phone call to us. The first night they woke all the freshmen up at 2:00am, had them run around the campus, build a model of the school, and write notes in chalk on the president's driveway. They also had a pool party in the quad where there's no pool (my theory on that one is the guys are just hoping to get the girls to wear bikinis).
My daughter is just starting. When she sees the level the classes are taught at and the level of homework, she'll see the truth in the statement that Mudd is a curse as well as a blessing. Because this is where the top students in the top high schools now meet their peers. But as in any other endeavor from athletics to the arts to other academics, working with peers to perform beyond what you thought you are capable of, provides an ultimate level of satisfaction and happiness. And Mudd is also clearly focused on trying to make everyone successful.
I'm very happy (and a little jealous) that my daughter picked Mudd. I think the next four years will be some of the happiest of her life. They'll definitely be four of the hardest.