Olin College of Engineering

  • Education
  • 1997

Franklin Olin didn’t finish school, but he was mechanically gifted and sufficiently studious that at age 22 he passed the entrance exam for Cornell University, where he studied engineering. He proved to be a natural entrepreneur, and when Olin died in 1951 his bequest made his foundation one of the largest in the nation. For years, the F. W. Olin Foundation supported science and engineering projects; then the trustees decided to create a brand-new college to offer students Franklin Olin-style twists on engineering. The Olin College of Engineering, chartered in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1997, particularly aimed to make its engineers more creative, more entrepreneurial, more interdisciplinary and comfortable working in teams, and equipped with better communications skills. All of these elements were lacking in traditional engineering training.

The foundation committed $200 million to start the fledgling school—at the time a record in higher education. It located Olin adjacent to Babson College, one of the nation’s top-ranked entrepreneurship schools, and 25 percent of Olin students are simultaneously taking classes at Babson or nearby Wellesley College. To help produce a culture of change and innovation, faculty members are untenured. Only 16 percent of applying students are admitted, and 41 percent of alums go on to advanced study. Olin graduates soon ranked among the top winners of National Science Foundation graduate fellowships and Fulbright scholarships.

When it closed its doors for good in 2005, the Olin Foundation transferred the balance of its endowment—over $250 million—to the college. With a total of $460 million in gifts from its founder, the college gives all students a half-tuition scholarship. Olin’s fresh approach to engineering has inspired wide interest and imitation. More than 50 universities send observers to the campus annually. Nine are now revising their programs along Olin’s lines. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, all engineering freshmen have begun following a program that borrows from Olin courses.

Could these changes have been triggered without creating a new privately funded model college? The college’s founding president, Richard Miller, is doubtful. “The National Science Foundation spent around $100 million over 10 years to provoke this kind of change on large campuses in the 1990s. After five or six years, they ended it—concluding that its penetration into universities was disappointing…. I view Mr. Olin as a great example…. He was an entrepreneur, he was educated as an engineer, and he was motivated to do things to create opportunities for others. We are doing all that we know how to do to inspire the graduates of Olin to follow along that path.”