When It Must Be Boston: Two Specialty Schools (Part 3: Bentley and Olin)

For the concluding post in our Boston series, we turn to two specialty schools:  Bentley University and Olin College of Engineering.


Bentley University

Some students are born accountants.  Well, perhaps not, but there are a few colleges nationwide devoted solely to undergraduate business studies.

Two of those colleges are in Boston:  Babson College and Bentley University.  Babson is renowned for its programs in entrepreneurship (consistently rated #1 nationwide by U.S. World and News Report), finance, and international business.  Bentley, founded in 1917 as the Bentley School of Accounting and Finance, is strong in accounting and finance, as well as in information management systems.   Bloomberg News just ranked it #10 in undergraduate business schools nationwide.

I was only able to visit Bentley on this trip.  The school serves 4,200 undergraduates (Babson serves half that number) on a 163-acre campus.  I would describe its style as nondescript New England, with brick buildings and mostly new in appearance.  It looks and feels like a college campus, if a bit homogenous.

But the most interesting takeaway from my visit is that attending a business college is not the same as majoring in business at your typical university.  Although both Babson and Bentley offer liberal arts courses, the focus of those courses is on crafting more literate business leaders.

For example, both schools offer foreign languages.  But the emphasis is on complementing business skills.  From the Babson course description for Arabic:

As the course progresses, more emphasis will fall on teaching Arabic in business contexts in an interactive and communicative way. This last part of the course will focus on developing students’ abilities in using Arabic in business environments, including commercial, media and financial purposes.

Babson also offers a separate course in Business Arabic.  Bentley is similarly focused, allowing students to major in a foreign language only when combined with a business studies major.

This observation is not intended as criticism.  The liberal arts offerings at both schools are, as the English would say, “fit for purpose.”  These business schools are focused on providing business education.  This allows for greater concentration on the core curriculum, particularly when the required liberal arts classes are designed for business students.

For example, at the prestigious Ross School at the University of Michigan, undergraduates spend their freshman year outside the school satisfying general education requirements, and, to earn a degree, are required to satisfy a four semester foreign language requirement.  Freshman at Bentley also pursue general education requirements in their first year, but take three business classes and a course in information technology.  Neither Bentley nor Babson have foreign language requirements.

Business colleges provide tools and programs which are beyond the reach of most undergraduates at other schools.  Bentley has a trading floor, fully equipped with Bloomberg terminals.  A student organization, BIG (the Bentley Investment Group) runs about $800,000 in university funds, and reports to the Board of Trustees.  It has 200 student members consisting of a mix of undergraduate and graduate students.  (A similar program at the University of Denver – also impressive – is only open to a few select graduate students in finance.)  The library at Bentley has dozens of academic and industry business journals available to students.

Bentley has a robust internship program, and plenty of corporate recruiters visiting campus.  The Career Services office posts detailed placement statistics on the Bentley website, and even accounts for the “non-responders” that most universities would prefer to ignore.  Bentley’s job placement statistics are impressive. Bentley students may not be the crème-de-la-crème of students nationwide, but they get good jobs, including at Big 4 accounting firms.  The same is true of Babson, which is more select in admissions.

Speaking of admissions, here are the numbers (Selectivity/GPA/SAT/ACT):

Babson:  26%/3.5/1281/30 (U.S. News and World Report has the ACT at 28; I’m using the school’s numbers).  Note also that Babson reports that it admitted 36% of all female applicants.

Bentley:  46%/3.6/1240/28 (GPA not reported by the school; my estimate is based other data)

Business colleges are a different breed; they are self-selecting in the sense that fewer students are willing to commit to a career path in business.  Students who are willing to do so should take a good look at both Bentley and Babson.


Olin College of Engineering

Olin is the outlier of our Boston college roundup.  Only 80 students are admitted each year, each with ridiculously superb credentials and records of achievement.  Indeed, the college suggests that letters of recommendation discuss how the applicant previously made such a huge impact during high school that his or her absence will leave a void behind in the community.  (Female students make up 50% of Olin’s incoming class each year.)

In other words, the odds that you know a student qualified to attend Olin are somewhere between slim and none.

Just in case that high bar does not limit enrollment, Olin goes one step further by offering only one degree – in engineering.

And each year 93% of Olin freshmen come back for more.

Olin is one of the most fascinating colleges I have ever visited, and it should be on your radar on the off-chance you bump into a technical prodigy who wants to do “hands-on” engineering.  Olin students remind me of the NASA ground-based engineers who had to design a supplemental carbon dioxide removal system out of procedure manual covers, hoses, and duct tape, and then walk the Apollo 13 astronauts through the procedure in one of the most heroic rescues of our age.  See https://www.quora.com/How-did-the-Apollo-13-engineers-fit-a-round-peg-in-a-square-hole-rapidly.  Or, to put it another way, if someday the dilithium crystals fail on a latter-day U.S.S. Enterprise, Olin engineers will be part of the crew called in to create a workaround.

This gushing is a natural reaction to Olin’s attempt to refashion the typical design and engineering curriculum.  With a few promising, but nascent, exceptions, every engineering program in the world starts with dry technical courses and a few desultory labs where certain long-known results are simply confirmed as they were in years past.  Many engineering students burn out long before they “know” enough to try practicing engineering.

Olin jump-starts the curriculum by making it project based, with an emphasis on design and fabrication.  Students learn their physics, chemistry, and math as needed during their projects.  Whatever the sub-set of engineering studied (and Olin offers electrical, computer, mechanical, and biomedical engineering), the emphasis is on the process of designing and making various projects.

It starts with students’ hands and machinery.  Olin has a wood shop(!) and a machine shop, and maybe more toy factories we did not get to see on the tour.  Trained technicians, or “ninjas”, are on duty well into the evening, every day, to help students learn to fabricate objects and put them together.

Olin’s other distinction is its emphasis on the needs of human users.  In its words: “[w]e believe that engineering is a creative enterprise that begins and ends with people and their desire for a better world.”

Olin’s approach is to place people at the center of frame as customers for the student’s products.  Student engineers are assigned products by customers.  Students design for those customer’s needs, confer with them through focus groups and direct collaboration, and fabricate the final products.  Students evaluate the success of their projects by the utility of the product and its suitability for the customer.

Olin engineers are thrown into the pool from Day One.  Their first assignment is to build . . . a toy.  Their user group?  A group of 4th graders from a nearby elementary school.  The finished products are displayed at Olin, and the 4th graders, armed with clipboards and stickers, descend upon the projects to evaluate them.  As one Olin student put it, you do NOT want a frowney face sticker on your toy.

Olin requires engineers to study the humanities, social science, and entrepreneurship to nurture their creativity and keep them focused on the “human factor” in engineering.

Students eventually exercise their engineering prowess in one of two senior capstone projects.  In “Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship”, Olin students fan out across the globe to underdeveloped countries to work on local projects defined by what the residents want designed.  The other track, SCOPE, is similar, but the customers are U.S. corporations and government agencies outsourcing particularly difficult work.

Olin’s emphasis on user-based design and development closely mirrors how engineering is done in the real world.  Private industry has noticed, and those Olin graduates who do not go on to prestigious graduate schools are hired in large numbers by established tech firms such as Microsoft and start-ups.

Blue Origin and Space X – the private NASA of our age – have picked up a few graduates, too.  After all, you never know when you might need an Olin engineer on a space mission.

Leave a Reply