Caltech's Shocking Lack of Diversity: A Microcosm for the United States?

ByFadl Saadi

Caltech has a serious diversity problem. Here are the straight up numbers for undergraduates at Caltech.

Only 1% of Caltech undergraduates are African American. That means that there are roughly nine Black undergraduate students out of a population of 900. There are zero students who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, and only 6% who identify as Hispanic. Contrast those to the demographic of the Los Angeles area which is: 7.6% African American, 0.9% Native American, and 40.3% Hispanic. (U.S. Demographics are: 12.6% African American, 16.3% Hispanic and 0.2% American Indian or Alaskan Native.)

I recognize that these issues are related to larger questions of race and inequality in the U.S., but for the purposes of this post, I am focusing on Caltech initiatives to promote diversity on campus.

A common argument I hear for this lack of diversity is that Caltech is simply too difficult to allow someone without the best math and science background to attend. They argue that anyone who has not mastered the sciences by the time they get here has no hope of succeeding. This perspective bothers me to no end.

My alma mater, Stanford,  is arguably equally as academically strong as Caltech, but is much more diverse. Ten percent of the undergraduate population is African American, 14% is Hispanic and 3% American Indian or Alaskan Native. Clearly, there are many talented minority students out there.

I recently saw a trip from a local, predominately-Hispanic middle school and could not help but ask myself: when these students walk around will they not notice how so few people here look like them? Will they not internalize it and start believing that an institution like Caltech is beyond their reach?

I also look at the current undergraduates and I think: how are these students going to grow when they live in such a homogenous enclave? How will they grow without meeting and debating with people from different backgrounds and perspectives? Diversity is essential, not just for providing equal opportunities to minorities, but for making Caltech students more well-rounded, ethical, and informed.

I know I would not be the same person had I not met such a diverse range of people. People ranging from queer Hawaiian natives who believe in Hawaii's rights to secede, to African Americans who were raised by teenage mothers and incarcerated fathers, to Hispanics who group up in Los Angeles. Sure, they had cool stories, but what I learnt most from them was how to see things from entirely new points of view. I have been so blessed and humbled to meet these people and I sincerely believe that Caltech is robbing that experience from their students.

I believe that private universities (I would argue the same for public universities but understand that that might be a bit more contentious) are not meant to "reward" who they see as the most qualified, but should instead try to create the best community of students they possibly can. This has to go beyond academics. I know Caltech has tried to improve its diversity recently and I applaud their efforts but more needs to be done. At the end of the day this is just not OK.

PS: I whole-heartedly agree that people from underprivileged backgrounds regardless of race should also have affirmative action.

PPS: By referencing Stanford I am in no way saying that it is ideal there either. Stanford itself has a long way to go too. It's just farther along that way than Caltech is.

PPPS: Women are also underrepresented at Caltech. ~40% of the undergraduate population is female. Caltech has worked on improving this number over the years but more work needs to be done. This issue merits its own post and discussion and also needs to be addressed by the Caltech Community.

A version of this article originally appeared on Fadl's blog, "Life of a People Person Problem Solver."