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Student Life Transformed

Students and student life have changed over the last 35 years, and both are better than ever.

Upon hearing that I am an MIT faculty member and that my wife and I are housemasters, my fellow alumni often ask me how students and student life have changed over the last 35 years. My offhand response is to assure them that, in fact, not all that much has changed. Students still come here to study and to be part of the unique community that is MIT. But in thinking a little more deeply, I have concluded that some things have changed. And despite the tendency to view our own student days at MIT as the pinnacle of university life, I’ve also concluded that things have changed largely for the better.

Some of those changes have been driven by demographics. Over the past decade, MIT crossed what I have always viewed as the real threshold to coeducation. Women now constitute more than 40 percent of the undergraduate student body, representing an irreversible shift at what had historically been an overwhelmingly male institution. Moreover, given that a far greater proportion of male undergraduates live off campus in fraternities and independent living groups than female students, the MIT dormitory population is almost evenly divided between women and men. Having nearly as many women as men in our undergraduate student body has brought better balance to the community, making it far less an unnatural grouping and far more like the rest of the world we live in.

The undergraduate population has changed in another more subtle way as well. In the past, the students admitted to MIT excelled at math and science; now, our students excel at almost all things academic. One measure of this is that while their math SAT scores are essentially the same as their predecessors’, their average verbal SAT scores have increased markedly. Academically, these students are far better balanced than those in past generations. Most of the students accepted at MIT could just as easily have been admitted to Ivy League colleges.

Another significant change is that there are now far more graduate students than undergraduates. Our older alumni recall a time when MIT had more undergraduates than graduate students—a condition that persisted until about 1980. In contrast, the Institute now has about 50 percent more graduate students than undergraduates. The steady growth of the graduate student population has translated into a greater need for graduate dormitories. MIT responded by opening two of them in the last four years. In a sense, it is a reversal of the cliché “if you build it, they will come”: “if you admit them, you will build it.”

The growth of the grad student population, and the increasing involvement of grad students in the residential community at MIT, has sparked far greater interest in graduate student life. This is evident in the much more active Graduate Student Council and in the greatly expanded agenda of graduate student programs and events. MIT has greatly enhanced the orientation process for graduate students, and there are major initiatives under way to improve advising, mentoring, and the quality of grad students’ lives. Perhaps most significantly, these changes have largely been student initiated.

Finally, I note that life for both undergraduates and graduate students at MIT now benefits from a much deeper commitment, by both the faculty and the administration, to providing support. Some of this can be seen in the greater opportunity for informal counseling, the increased number of graduate residence tutors in undergraduate dorms and FSILGs, and better access to mental-health and mediation services. And there is far better communication now than before among students, the staff of the office of the dean for student life, the faculty Committee on Student Life, academic administrators, and the housemasters. The result: a much more effective, though still far from perfect, network of people who can help students who are having academic, emotional, or health problems than previously existed. Put more simply, MIT now does a far better job helping our students in all aspects of their lives.

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