Harvey Mudd College: STEM + liberal arts

D5C7A962-133F-4501-8ABC-A4E9930B34CA_1_201_a“Innovative,” my daughter described Harvey Mudd and then immediately mentioned “those wheels outside the dining hall.” Walk on the Mudd campus and you will see what she means. A math, science and engineering school, Mudd also calls itself a liberal arts college. Signs of quirkiness, fun, and the school’s fascinating history abound on a campus where students, in the first five minutes of any conversation, will also tell you how hard they work. Mudd stands out as a combination of what could seem like competing influences that in the end come together as an eclectic and exciting whole.

Students interested in math, science, and engineering but who don’t want to give up the humanities or social sciences should take a close look at Mudd. On the one hand, all 10 of the college’s majors fall into STEM buckets as do many of the required Common Core Curriculum courses. On the other hand, as part of the larger Claremont College consortium, Mudd students may choose to take courses or even major on one of the other Claremont campuses. With five undergraduate campuses and 8,000 students occupying one square mile, that leaves quite a choice! Just under five percent of Mudd students take advantage of that “Off-Campus Major” option. Those students who do must still minor in one of the 10 Mudd majors.

Competition sometimes pervades STEM fields, but not at Mudd. A student who works in the admissions office and who sat with us for about 30-40 minutes called the atmosphere at Mudd “collaborative…Nobody is trying to hide their homework.” Collaboration helps Mudd students get through what they describe as a significant workload—both in terms of course load and material. Academic requirements call for an average of 5 1/2 classes each term, more than at both Harvard and Yale, and “the material is heavy too—they expect you to learn a lot.” A table of students in the dining hall, where my daughter and I ate lunch, seconded the heavy workload. As a result, the admissions committee looks for students who like to work collaboratively and who can do so under pressure.

Mudd has implemented policies to alleviate some of the pressure and is looking to make additional changes. All first-year students take their first semester pass/no credit (no grades). Applicants no longer have to take College Board subject tests as part of the admissions process. Our student admissions rep told us that the administration is currently looking for additional ways to give students more academic flexibility and autonomy.

None of this has dampened Mudd students’ enthusiasm for their school. Parties take on quirky themes, like an activities-based party with wrestling matches or a 1980s event. Walk through the Mudd campus on a weekend evening and you might even see bonfires in the courtyard, as if students were at the beach. Our student admissions rep could not say enough about campus life, emphasizing the value students place on the people around them and on their community.

Ninety eight percent of Mudd students live on campus all four years. First-year students get assigned to a dorm, each one with its own character (athletics, board games!) and with mentors and proctors to ease the transition to college life. Many students continue on in the same dorm all four years. All of the dorms rely on an honor code when students are getting their work done, an indication of the responsibility the administration trusts the student body to shoulder. In the dorms, students in multiple years can live together in the same suite (first years, sophomores, etc.).

While the residence halls sit above ground, Harvey Mudd’s eclectic reputation comes in part from the below-ground placement of its original classrooms. All five Claremont Colleges opened at different times and in response to different events taking place in the United States (U.S.) and in the world. Harvey Mudd opened in response to the Space Race and the Cold War, to train American engineers, mathematicians and scientists so that the U.S. could outpace its world rival at the time, the Soviet Union. Fears of a Soviet nuclear attack during that period led to Mudd’s underground classrooms. New construction has taken place since then to bring the college into the 21st century.

Harvey Mudd College “brings out your inner nerd,” according to our student admissions rep. Students lean into that ethos as part of what makes Mudd unique. A STEM-oriented school that also allows students to explore the liberal arts because of its partnership with the other Claremont Colleges, Mudd offers a challenging and rigorous academic experience, anchored in a strong, collaborative community. Strong dorm life, theme-based parties, bonfires in the courtyard, and the chance to participate in the social life on the surrounding Claremont College campuses give Mudd students many opportunities to enjoy themselves in the off-hours that they have.