Distant Revisit: Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has long operated under the motto of “Theory and Practice.” WPI is also unique among the more technically focused schools in being test-optional. Notable WPI alumni include Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and the founder of the FIRST Robotics Competition and Robert Goddard, considered the Father of Rocketry.

I’m a fan of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute approach to business, science and engineering education. Here’s a few reasons why. 

Projects come early and often through your degree program. WPI freshmen may take a two-term Great Problems Seminar that is taught by more than one faculty member, and includes a group project with three or four students; a cross-disciplinary  seven-week  Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), a team-based problem solving exercise with a real client, either off-campus or overseas; and a  seven-week Major Qualifying Project (MQP) in the senior year. Most other engineering programs have only a senior design project. 

That approach must be helping retention. WPI’s freshman retention rate has been at least 94 percent since 2011, outstanding for a technology-focused school, even as the freshman classes have grown by over 200 students. The institute also graduated over 80 percent of each freshman class arrived between 2010 and 2012.  

You learn more than just business, science or engineering. WPI requires every undergraduate to have an arts/humanities minor.

You get real chances to succeed. WPI’s grading system has no D’s or F’s. Instead, there is a grade of No Record. Neither the grade of No Record nor the course where that grade was earned appear on a student’s transcript. Nor is a grade of No Record calculated within a student’s GPA. While WPI students will attempt 48 classes during their education, only 45 are required for graduation. In effect, a WPI student is allowed grades of No Record for three courses.

Career development is taken quite seriously. Freshmen are invited and encouraged to attend career fairs on campus and apply for internships. They may also participate in informational interviews coached by upper-class students as well as faculty, employers and alumni. Career fairs are held during the fifth week of their term, after midterms but before students must seriously study for finals. Co-op is optional. Its possible to graduate from WPI in four and one-half years with three 14-week co-op experiences. 

It’s a nice, well-maintained campus. WPI’s newest buildings with sleeker facades were designed to blend well with the Federal-style classroom, laboratory and administration buildings that opened during the 19th century. Considering that WPI has an open campus in a city, the campus feels quite safe. Parking is easy to find, pushed to the edge of the campus; there’s no traffic at the center.

If you’re into Robotics this might be your school. WPI was the first school in the US to offer a Bachelors degree in Robotics Engineering. It is now the third-most popular major at the school after Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science. 

No college is perfect, including Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Here’s why:

The experience is quite expensive. WPI has a total cost of attendance of nearly $70,000 for this academic year. But to be fair, the school tries to help the neediest applicants. Over 60 percent of the freshmen who arrived in 2017 received need-based scholarships, and just over a third received merit based awards. The awards kept the average student loan balance for a 2017 graduate to just over $28,000. The maximum that a student can borrow through the Federal Stafford Student Loan Program is $27,000. 

Tough material is tougher to master in less time. WPI students take three or four classes over seven weeks versus five or six at a college that runs on semesters. Unless you love math and science, you can really struggle, even when there’s a platoon of people to help. Not to mention that you have to get to know your teammates faster to complete the projects in the project-based classes. 

The housing situation could be better. WPI less than half of its students on campus, including those who live in fraternity or sorority house.  Worcester also has a local ordinance that prohibits more than three unrelated people from living together in the same dwelling, whether it be an apartment or a house. Fortunately, Worcester is an inexpensive place to live, especially for New England. It is quite possible to live off-campus and share an apartment or house for less than you would pay to live on campus.

Worcester has a lot of colleges, but it is not really a college town. There are 13 colleges in and around the city, but the students are not likely to mingle off campus outside of major events at the city’s civic center. 

WPI is more “Boston centeredthan some might like.  Over two-thirds of WPI’s undergraduate student body comes from five New England states. It’s not surprising that most of them would remain in the region after they graduate.  Among the nearly 30,000 WPI alumni who supplied information to LinkedIn.com, more than 16,000 live and around the Boston area, including Worcester.

This school has grown since I last visited. I went to campus in the fall of 2014 when there were just over 4,200 undergraduates. There were nearly 4,700 after the Institute this fall as the welcomed its current freshman class. Women represent a larger percentage of the undergraduate population, up from 33 to 38 percent. They represent over 40 percent of the past two freshmen classes. 

WPI has become slightly more selective since I visited. The institute offered admission to nearly half of the students who applied to join the class of 2019. The acceptance rate went down to 42 percent for the class that arrived this fall. But the size of the freshman class grew by over 200. Although WPI is test-optional it considers standardized test scores to be an important consideration for students who submit them. Seventy percent of the class that arrived in the fall of 2017 submitted SAT scores. The middle 50 percent scored between 1300 and 1460. The average GPA was a 3.9.

In my opinion, formed from many school visits over time, WPI offers the best undergraduate academic experiences for a business, science or engineering student in the United States. You might not turn down admission to MIT to come here. But after a semester at MIT you might wish that you did.  

Report Card: Worcester Polytechnic Institute

  • Four-Year/Six-Year Graduation Rates: A
  • Freshman Retention: A
  • Costs: B
  • Curriculum: A
  • Community: B+
  • Comforts: B+
  • Connections: A

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