Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is the first degree granting technological university in the English-speaking world. Rensselaer was established “for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life.” Since Rensselaer’s founding, its alumni have impacted the world in many significant ways, including:
Yet, for all of its accomplishments, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rensselaer was not well positioned (to prospective students) compared to its world-renowned rival, MIT, or even schools such as Caltech, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon. Many state universities (e.g., Purdue, University of Illinois at Urbana, etc.) offered exceptionally strong technical programs at significantly lower costs than private universities. Ivy League schools and other first-tier liberal arts universities were building their math, science, and engineering programs. And most states had public universities that provided respectable engineering programs. This increasingly competitive landscape left Rensselaer in a positioning “no man’s land.” I was on Rensselaer’s alumni board of directors and national admissions committee at the time. We worked with the school to conduct research to better understand the college selection process. We interviewed students (and their parents), some of whom chose to attend Rensselaer and some of whom didn’t. We explored what factors were most important in their decision-making process as well as their perceptions of Rensselaer as compared with other schools. And we conducted focus groups with alumni and businesspeople to better understand their impressions of Rensselaer.
- Building the Brooklyn Bridge
- Building the Panama Canal
- Inventing the Ferris wheel
- Inventing baking powder
- Inventing television
- Creating the microprocessor
- Founding Texas Instruments/creating the first pocket calculator
- Creating e-mail (including using the @ symbol)
- Managing the Apollo project that put the first man on the moon
- Inventing the Reach toothbrush
- Inventing digital photography
Almost everyone who knew of Rensselaer perceived it to be a first-rate technical school. Many put it in the same class as MIT. People “in the know” were genuinely impressed with the school and the caliber of its students, its academics, and its research. But there were drawbacks:
Furthermore, those with no connection to the school had no impression of the school. Awareness was also nil among the general U.S. population.
- Rensselaer is in Troy, New York (which lacks the appeal of, say, Boston or California).
- Rensselaer is not as well known or prestigious as MIT. It does not have the same name cache.
- Rensselaer costs more than state engineering schools (though after factoring in financial aid, costs can be comparable).
- Rensselaer was known to be a “boot camp.” It’s been said that “you don’t go there to have fun.”
- The curriculum was perceived to be too narrow compared to liberal arts schools.
- The school had a lopsided male to female ratio (13:1 when I attended in the mid-to-late 1970s, and a 3:1 ratio today).
- A significant portion of Rensselaer’s students (mostly those who had used Rensselaer as a backup school to MIT and others) felt inferior to students at their first-choice schools.
These were significant hurdles. And yet, looking at the school itself, there were also a number of very strong advantages, which include:
- A rich history by alumni of major contributions to society
- A vital, engaged campus community
- A strong student leadership development program
- Innovations in entrepreneurship, with one of the first and perhaps best known business incubators and a strong student entrepreneurship program
- Award-winning innovations in educational techniques
- Thriving interdisciplinary research centers
- Programs that ranked among the best available in the world
- An increasingly strong reputation throughout the world (Interestingly, the university’s reputation was stronger in many other countries than it was in the U.S. Midwest!)
Also, the university had embarked on a significant long-term commitment to enhance the student experience, addressing everything from administrative procedures, counseling, and breadth of course offerings to quality of instruction, the male-to-female ratio, and campus aesthetics. And, gauging from student surveys over time, the efforts were producing significant results.
Here are the key insights that led to Rensselaer’s very powerful current positioning:
So, Rensselaer’s tagline—”Why not change the world?”—was born.
- Rensselaer’s students have always been serious about their chosen fields of endeavor and their studies.
- Rensselaer’s faculty, students, and alumni want to make a difference in the world.
- Rensselaer is and has been a leader in technological innovation.
- Rensselaer’s alumni, throughout the school’s history, have made major, lasting contributions to society.
- Rensselaer was emerging as a leader in entrepreneurship, especially technological entrepreneurship.
- “Technological creativity” seemed to capture the essence of the school and the spirit of those associated with the school throughout its now 190-year history.
- Rensselaer wanted its new positioning not only to capture the school’s unique competitive advantages but also to inspire its students and give them confidence. (In the mid-to-late 1970s, under George Low’s leadership, the school informally adopted the slogan, “Rensselaer: Where imagination can achieve the impossible.” For a short time after that, the school used the slogan, “Rensselaer: For minds ahead of their time.”)
Accurately reflecting the school’s strengths and those of its alumni? Yes.
An invitation to like-minded individuals and organizations to “come join Rensselaer in its quest”? Yes
Effective in recruiting an increasing number of highly qualified students? Yes.
Rensselaer’s entering freshman classes are the most qualified and talented in the last few decades. Each class seems more qualified than the one before. As one measure, the Class of 2005 arrived on campus with an average SAT score of 1307, 25 points over that of the previous class.
And in the three years between 2005 and 2008, applications went from 5,500 to 11,000. In 2013, more than 16,100 high school students applied for admission to Rensselaer and the average SAT critical reading and math score for the admitted group averaged 1408. And, the most important question: Are students satisfied with Rensselaer and its recently articulated positioning? Yes.
Today, Rensselaer is thriving. In early 2001, it received a gift of $360 million—the largest single gift (at that time) ever made to a university. In 2004 it built a $82 million Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies to expand its research portfolio; in 2008 it built a $200 million Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center to showcase its world-leading electronic arts program; in 2009 it built a $92 million East Campus Athletic Village; and in 2013 it established its $100 million Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI), featuring the seventh most powerful supercomputer in the world.