Admissions strategy touts science resources

The recent influx of money into Yale’s research facilities, coupled with an increase in Yale students interested in the sciences, may validate the famed whispers from the cornfields — “If you build it, they will come.”

The “modest upward trend” over the past few years in the percentage of matriculating students with an interest in science may be linked to the University’s efforts to change the common perception of Yale as a primarily humanities-oriented institution. In presentations for prospective applicants around the country and on campus, the admissions office is putting a greater emphasis on Yale’s commitment to the sciences, both monetarily and philosophically, Undergraduate Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said.

“There’s some perception that Yale is more focused on the humanities and the social sciences,” he said. “These are Yale’s traditional strengths … but we’ve felt that it’s important to highlight the investments Yale has been making in science.”

In addition to giving science a larger billing in admissions presentations, Brenzel said, the office began offering tours of the science facilities separately from the regular admissions tour in spring 2006.

The admissions strategies are part of the larger concerted effort the University has undertaken to bolster its offerings in the sciences and engineering. In 2000, the University pledged over $1 billion in funding for science and engineering expansion programs in the coming decade as part of the University’s Yale Tomorrow campaign.

The efforts may be yielding some concrete results.

Vivek Raman ’11, a prospective engineering major, said Yale’s decision last year to build the Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering heavily influenced his final decision to come to Yale. Raman was weighing offers of admission from Stanford and MIT against Yale’s.

“Yale’s pouring money into facilities like the nanoscience research building to show its science students that it cares,” he said. “While currently, [schools like] Stanford and MIT may have the slight advantage in science and engineering, that’s going to change really fast in the next five or 10 years.”

On the rise?

The quantity and quality of applicants with interests in science and engineering has been on the “upswing,” Brenzel said. As a result, he said, the class of 2011 contains a higher percentage of students who indicated science as their principle area of interest than other recent classes.

This year, the applicant pool to “Perspectives on Science” — a course designed to give first-year science students a taste of research at the University — was so strong that its faculty decided to increase the class’s enrollment by 25 percent, to 75 slots, program coordinator William Segraves said.

“As the word gets out about the level of investment of resources and reputation of Yale, we’ve seen a lot more applications from very strong students in the sciences,” he said. “We’ve also seen some pickup in the numbers of admits [from science backgrounds].”

Brenzel declined to release the specific percentages of applicants or accepted students interested in the sciences.

Yale’s publicity efforts about investments in the sciences are bearing fruit, most of the half-dozen high-school guidance counselors interviewed said.

Although some students may decide against Yale in favor of a purely technical school, Yale holds its own among other elite liberal-arts schools in competing for talented high-school scientists, said Tom Walsh, director of college guidance at the private Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Mass.

“We have seen Yale’s efforts to articulate its strength in those fields where maybe folks there perceive that they haven’t been receiving the kind of recognition they merit,” Walsh said.

The ratio between undergraduates in science and those in other fields may increase in upcoming years as a result of such strategies, following a dip in the numbers of science majors during the 1990s, Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department Michael Koelle said.

Enrollment in science courses went up by 300 students in 2006-’07, but the total is still 2,000 students fewer than a recent peak in 1995-’96, according to the Office of Institutional Research. Last year, 11,042 students were enrolled in science courses.

According to the OIR, the number of majors in the natural sciences at the College shows the same trajectory — a downward trend since the early part of last decade, with a very slight increase over the last year.

Why Yale?

Some Yale students interviewed said that while the University has a strong science program, enrolling at Yale instead of at a school more focused on the sciences may have compromised the quality of their science education.

“It’s probably true that I might have received a slightly better science education somewhere else,” said Steve Pacquin ’11, who said Yale was his first choice, but for reasons other than its science program.

He said he has been disappointed with only one of his science classes this year, and he does not regret his decision to come to Yale.

For Pacquin, the promise of a well-rounded Yale experience outweighed his concerns about the University’s relative strength in the sciences.

“I came here for the people,” he said. “They’re more multi-dimensional here than I feel they’d be at some other science-oriented institutions. I was looking for a holistic experience, not just a science experience.”

Projects currently under consideration that would bolster Yale’s science resources include upgrading Sterling Chemistry Laboratory and Yale’s other laboratory spaces, building new facilities for the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the University’s biology departments, and renovating the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

For many students interested in science, the Yale name alone can allay any fears about the strength of the science program.

“You’re Yale,” said Andrew McNeill, co-director of college counseling at Taft School in Watertown, Conn. “Those four letters alone mean you’re good.”

But Walsh said that for some students interested in pursuing science in college and beyond, “technical” schools like MIT or the California Institute of Technology — which have a specific focus on science and fewer distributional requirements — may be better fits.

Some students interviewed said Yale’s undergraduate science education is comparable, if not superior, to that of its peer institutions.

Matt Kremer ’11, a prospective science major who said Yale was his first choice, said the “misconception” about Yale’s weakness in the sciences comes from its graduate science schools, which have traditionally been ranked lower than those of some of the University’s peer institutions. He said this perception may make Yale a less attractive graduate school for science-oriented students, but it does not hold at the undergraduate level, where the education is “first-rate.”

Raman said rankings often take size into account, which explains why many of Yale’s departments — which are much smaller than those of some peer institutions — are traditionally low down on the list.

“People view small as low-quality, which is just not true,” he said.

Raman said he views the small sizes of many of Yale’s science programs as an asset of the undergraduate experience at Yale. Low faculty-to-student ratios make interaction with the faculty and research opportunities much easier than at some bigger institutions, Raman said.

Programs like “Perspectives on Science” are concrete examples of the University’s dedication to getting students involved in independent research, even as early as their freshman year, Gabrielle Rabinowitz ’11 said.

The opportunity to do research as a freshman attracted Yale applicant Jack Berry, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., which has a science magnet program.

Berry, who has been doing research on infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health since last summer, said he was impressed by Yale’s apparent emphasis on undergraduates and teaching, a feeling he said he did not get at several other schools.

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