The Professors of PPE, left to right: Brock Blomberg (Dean of the Robert Day School), Ward Elliott (a founder of the program), and Paul Hurley (three-time winner of Pomona College's Wig Award for Distinguished Teaching).

Founded in 1987 by Economics professor Gordon Bjork, the PPE program (Philosophy, Politics, & Economics) at Claremont McKenna has grown to become a hallmark of the school. While the program has several admirable qualities, the program carries intrinsic flaws.  A program that captures so much of CMC’s resources deserves a close look.

Students apply for the PPE major the fall of their sophomore year. Students are informed of their acceptance in November.  The program has a maximum capacity of 14 students (and due to the increasing popularity of the major, it is rare that there are less than 14 students accepted into the program). Students start their Spring semester taking classes with Professor Hurley, the philosophy professor of PPE.

Aside from class time, every student attends a weekly tutorial, starting with their first the spring semester after acceptance.  The first tutorial is with one peer, as is the case for all.  Each week one student assesses and critiques a paper handed in by the other.  The next week, roles switch.  Hurley notes that because of this set-up, PPE is “easily the most intensive program for advancing verbal skills. You have to come in and defend your views every week.”

However, the tutorial style set-up of the program, based off of the interdisciplinary major found at Oxford University, inefficiently allocates the teachers. Professor Blomberg– who teaches the economics component of the program in the fall of the PPE students’ senior year– mentions that, because he and the other PPE professors have to devote so much time to one class of students, they are unable to teach to as many students as other professors at the school.

While this is a clear drawback of the program, it nevertheless fosters a tight-knit community centered around PPE for few students who can take part. One of the benefits of the PPE program at CMC, and something that all three PPE professors mentioned, is the cohesiveness of the PPE group. Hurley maintained that PPE is “an extraordinary experience for the students and faculty…You just have the feeling that you are a part of something really special.” Both Professor Elliott (the politics professor of PPE who teaches to students the spring of their junior year) and Professor Blomberg remarked that their favorite aspect of the program was the bonding and the people, respectively.

The program is not entirely unique to Claremont McKenna. Pomona, too, has its own PPE program. Their program runs much differently, however. Before coming to CMC five years ago, Professor Hurley was a PPE coordinator at Pomona for 16 years. Hurley describes the Pomona PPE major as a triple minor without any tutorial component. Students do not have to apply to the program as there are not a limited number of spots since the Pomona program does not require extensive professor involvement.  Pomona students take various classes in the fields of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, but there are no overarching classes that constitute the PPE major. Hurley views this as a major flaw in the program, mentioning that “there were seniors there who didn’t know the other PPE majors.” Thus, Pomona lacks the cohesiveness in their PPE program that makes the CMC program so attractive to some.

In addition, the students benefit from a merit stipends to help pay for books and other costs related to the program. The stipend distinguishes each student who is accepted as Edward J. Sexton Fellows.

Additionally, the placement of graduates of the PPE program after college is exceptional. The program has more to offer than just relationships and a special campus group. But the program is not without its criticism.  Because of the limited resources of the program, only 14 students may be accepted. Demand, unfortunately, exceeds the set supply of spots. Built around this system, the program places itself above other majors and asks that PPE majors undergo an application process to enter the program. Due to this restriction, imposed for a variety of reasons, several students per class are unable to major in perhaps what they came to CMC to study.

This current sophomore class, in particular, had a large number of PPE applicants.  28 students applied for only 14 spots.  Elliott admits that “this year’s second team (the students who didn’t get into PPE) would have been equal to the PPE students in the 80s and 90s.”

The PPE program certainly has its perks. Pictured above, members of the 2011 class dine at Toad Hall with Professor Blomberg.

While the PPE program is portrayed as an excellent program due to its cohesiveness and the success of its graduates, a program that distances itself with an application process raises the question: is it a fair one? The answer, simply, is no. It is not fair to deny people their major. It is not fair to create an elitist classroom where certain students get more attention than others. It is not fair to limit the resources of three great, tenured professors to these select students.

The question then becomes whether the administration cares about fairness. Do we want to divide our students and essentially say that the 14 PPE majors deserve more attention than other students? Not only are the PPE students receiving more professor attention; the school is spending more money on their education than on the education of other CMC students (and this is excluding the $1000 stipend PPE students receive).

It was apparent when talking with the PPE professors that the PPE students are a lucky bunch. Elliott notes that the program “squanders the (professors) attention on a pampered favored dozen of kids.”

However, all students benefit at least somewhat from the existence of the PPE program. The major attracts high caliber students to CMC. While initially as many as 1/5 freshman are declared PPE majors, the numbers drop as students find other areas of study that interest them. This suggests that the application process is largely self-selecting. And the PPE major serves to attract bright, ambitious students just by virtue of existing, even if those students do not end up participating in the program.

Additionally, while it is hard to accept this clear favoritism and teacher dedication awarded to PPE students, it does not mean that students majoring in other studies get less attention. Of course comparatively they do, but the existence of the PPE major does not cause my Literature professors to focus on me any less.

So the program, while academically rigorous and stimulating, has its flaws. But ultimately, the program could not exist as prodigiously as it currently does without limiting the number of people who take the course and expending teacher resources toward the program.

The program, in other words, has to be unfair. Otherwise it would not be as recognizable, or as worthwhile.

One way to perhaps rectify CMC’s PPE program would be to open up another track of PPE. This would mean that there would be two sets of PPE professors and two different tracks (so two groups of three professors each). Both Hurley and Blomberg advocate this idea, but recognize that it is costly and labor intensive. Hurley notes that “one of the biggest challenges for doing it is devoting the faculty time to the program.” Blomberg agrees, adding that “we want to make sure we have the resources (before opening up another track).”

While the school should continue to push for this program and hope to provide the PPE major to more students, it is more important to keep the PPE program in its current form than to change the formatting of the program. Let’s face it: Pomona’s PPE program just isn’t of the same quality, or prestige, as CMC’s. Because of those traits, and the benefits for the college that it brings, we should embrace the exclusivity and unfairness that comes with CMC’s program.


  1. AK-’13, you would have made a fine PPEer.

    Two tracks, no dice. Too many reasons. Maybe bump the capacity to 16 or 18 (oh wait would that might mess with our US News&WR rankings?…oh noes! nevermind.).

    Perhaps the answer is to promote more tutorial-style learning across the College. That would require increased teaching resources, however. Though you are correct that PPE students may suck more value out of their professori than the average non-PPE student, you must not forget that each of the three unit courses for PPE is a 2-credit course (or you could look at it as each professor serving 28 students per semester). Clearly we don’t get more because everyone else gets less…we just happen to get more (hot tub time with great minds). Haters gonna hate.

    In the name of Bjork, Roth, Elliott, Blomberg and Hurley!

  2. Your argument about the utilization of resources is an interesting one, but you neglect the fact that the program is funded largely by its own endowment from the Edward J. Sexton family. The funds are marked specifically for PPE and the continuation of the program. Even if they were not used to pay for PPE, they could not be freed up for other uses because of the conditions of the donation. The school isn’t spending more of its general operating funds on PPE students than it is any other students; rather, it is spending money from a donation made to make the program possible.

  3. PPE restricts its enrollment for the same reason CMC restricts its enrollment – because there are great benefits to smaller sized classes and to getting more attention from professors. By your logic, every small liberal arts college by definition “inefficiently allocates the teachers.”

    We could also ship Hurley, Elliott, and Blomberg off to UCLA and have them teach a 400 person seminar, but this is not maximizing their utility.

    You applied to CMC to get more attention from your professors at a small, elite, exclusive liberal arts college.

    Just like PPE, Claremont McKenna College “has to be unfair. Otherwise it would not be as recognizable, or as worthwhile.”

  4. Thank you for your insightful article. Allocation of resources to a particular group has always been a conundrum. It shows up in secondary “magnet” or “gifted” schools. It shows up in scholorships. It is an age old issue.

  5. This article just shows how spoiled us CMC students are/were. The author argues that it is unfair that CMCers should be denied a major of their choice. But there are hundreds of students each year at other schools (e.g. state schools) that, due to core classes perpetually being over capacity, literally have to change majors to get a full course load so they can graduate within 4–or even 5–years. As a transfer student into CMC, I can say that it’s a tough world outside of Club Med College. And, as Caroline commented, can’t the same argument about the “unfairness” of PPE admissions be used on admissions into CMC in the first place? Or should CMC just, say, double the amount of students admitted each year to be more “fair”. Ridiculous article.

    • The statement CMC students are spoiled certainly cannot be qualified by the fact we have access to better resources than other students at state schools. Everyone at CMC has paid close to $60,000 (either explicitly through tuition or implicitly through scholarships/financial aid) for access to those services. Yes, it is true classroom experiences are much better at CMC, but we also pay much more to come here. You may be right that CMC students are ‘spoiled’, but getting what you paid for is completely irreleant to that debate. Ridiculous comment.

  6. Ariel,

    As Caroline concisely points out (she must be an Edward J. Sexton Fellow), PPE especially relies on group cohesiveness, social capital, decreased transaction costs, and increased returns to intensive investment. In addition to the rigorous academic program you acknowledge, establishing a cohesive cohort is one of the three pillars of PPE as a program, the other being the facilitation of closer personal connections between the faculty and the students.

    Two tracks might be nice, but that doesn’t argue against PPE as a program, nor does it establish that it can or should be provided as an entitlement. I’m all in favor of CMC providing multiple parallel versions of this program, but it’s mistakenly shallow to think that the experience can be replicated by finding carbon copies of the unique professors involved (as your argument presumes, given your complaint about the lack of their availability).

    The design of PPE as a program is a microcosm of CMC as a college: limiting admission is required to accomplish mutually exclusive goals that are worth pursuing. Other colleges can provide raw inclusiveness and shallow interaction if that’s what you’re after.

  7. Having read the comments, I must disagree with Caroline and Rick that the “unfairness” noted by Ms. Katz is the same as the “unfairness” created by CMC in limiting the number of students who enter the school. It is manifestly not the same. Here’s why. Thousands of students apply to CMC. You end up with a class of around 250 or so. Those 250 students are contractually promised a CMC education, which means, within reason, access to the exceptional faculty at CMC. If a particular program limits access to these professors significantly, then students, arguably are NOT getting what they pay for (or what alumni donate for, or the federal government loans for) and are not getting what is promised. There is, obviously, some wiggle room here. Access is based on merit, not, say, alumni status (we hope) or income etc. The process of application is, I think, fair (and Ms. Katz offered no reason to think otherwise). Of course, all the profs can’t teach each and every student, and so some access will be limited. Classes close, etc. The question, then, is does the PPE’s use of these professor’s time and resources overstep the bounds of “fairness” to the students? That is a question worth considering, and I think Ms. Katz has raised an interesting argument that it might just do that.

    That said, this was a thoughtfully written article and I enjoyed it. I’m often interested in what’s going on with CMC. In support of Ms. Katz, I was a Literature major when I was at CMC, and, until I studied abroad my junior year, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I thought I wanted to be a lawyer (the horror!). I’m now an English professor (a medievalist). I now teach at a small university (about 2500 students) in North Carolina.

    But I can sympathize with being a perhaps lone Literature major in a sea of Econ/Accounting and/or Poli-sci folks!

    Tell profs Farrell, Fagan and Warner that I said hello! 🙂

  8. I think the issue here is that CMC should care equally about all of its students once we are let into the college. For this reason, the argument that the college process is equivalent to the PPE process is flawed.
    Great article Ariel!!

  9. Should we also consider the “unfairness” of other selective opportunites on campus such as the Robert Day Scholars program, the sponsored internship programs, the Washington program, employment opportunities at the various institutes on campus or the fact that some students are able to work closely with certain professors as research assistants? I think not. Once admitted to CMC, all students are given equal opportunity to apply for numerous programs and activities. Equality of outcomes is not guaranteed, but that doesn’t mean the system is unfair. While applying to CMC, all students were made aware of the competitiveness of all programs. Some students came hoping to enroll in the PPE program, but were unable to do so, others came hoping to play varsity soccer, and were similarly unable to do so. Should we start a second soccer or basketball team for those who were cut and therefore not be treated “equally” by their school?
    The article mentions a “clear favoritism and teacher dedication awarded to PPE students” which is absurdly untrue. The PPE staff does not devote its attention to selected students because those students are “favorites.” The PPE staff teaches a certain group because it is their job, it is what they are paid to do (by a separate fund, as many have pointed out) and it is their responsibility, just as it is the soccer coaches job to field the 11 best players or any professors job to hire the student most capable of assisting with research.
    CMC values each of its students, and provides each with the same prospective opportunities. The results of what each student is then able to with each opportunity may be different, but that doesn’t make them unfair. Steps toward equality may be made by increasing the overall number of opportunities for students to partake in, but it is quite different to say “CMC doesn’t have enough opportunities” than “The opportunities at CMC are unfair to students.”

  10. Isn’t CMC, itself, unfair then? After all, we do have a 16% accept rate vs the 50% of PPE… so, if anything, CMC is very unfair. What about all those Pitzer kids across the street who couldn’t get in? :


  12. The article mentions that, “the placement of graduates of the PPE program after college is exceptional,” but is there any hard proof of this. As a friend of most all of the PPE kids in my year, I’ve personally not seen proof of this. What’s their TFA acceptance rate? Their employment rate at graduation? Their law school/grad school acceptance rate? CMC students overall have “exceptional” placement after graduating, and until verifiable evidence comes out to the contrary, the only reason to believe that PPE students place far better than their classmates is that PPE veterans tell it to prospective students. PPE offers a brief overview of three disciplines, but the major itself hardly seems worthy of being called a “major”. That CMC allows these students to graduate without ensuring that they have a firm foundation in one discipline and have undergone higher level classes seems negligent. Most grad schools, after all, look for students who are passionate about a subject, not mildly interested in three. Maybe that’s why Pomona’s PPE requires students to really dig in to a discipline. From this article, it seems like PPEers would say that tutorial is the greatest advantage, but honestly, how far could any student get in higher level classes at CMC without going to office hours and thoroughly reviewing papers? Anyone who has taken higher level seminars in the humanities knows that professors expect and often mandate that you meet with them to discuss papers. I’m not saying that PPEers work less than their colleagues at CMC, but rather that the incredible hubris that is inculcated by, well, mostly themselves and their professors is hollow and does them a disservice. PPEers who wear their major like a merit badge should know that once they leave campus, few, if any, of the people they will be going to for jobs and grad school know what PPE is. PPE is not a signifier of excellence like a great GPA or stunning extra-curricular activities and internships are. It is a major.

    The bottom line: PPE students should not act like they are meta-students, superior to the rest of us. What is often painted as major for the best and the brightest is just a watered-down major that encourages writing and argumentation skills (because no other majors do that).

    As for fairness, is it fair that only some people get independent research fellowships or jobs with professors or trips abroad with debate teams? Of course it is. Life is about competitive processes, and if you think this is unfair, well, prepare yourself for the job market. Is it fair that you can’t be a PPE major even though you could take virtually the same classes with the same professors with small class sizes and go to office hours as often as you wish. Certainly it is.

  13. I like that there is a piece written on PPE, but I think that the complaints and objections are largely unfounded. I agree with Shane, “all students are given equal opportunity to apply for numerous programs and activities” which fundamentally makes the system fair. He is also correct in pointing out that equal opportunity does not guarantee nor imply “[e]quality of outcomes.” If that was the case, then CMC should just randomly select applicants from its applicant pool, which resonates as absurdity. I am not a PPE major, nor did I apply, but I recognize and appreciate the importance of the program and the positive externalities it has on the rest of the CMC population.

    Also, Professor Hurley is a boss. That is all.


  14. I like that there is a piece written on PPE, but I think that the complaints and objections are largely unfounded. I agree with Shane, “all students are given equal opportunity to apply for numerous programs and activities” which fundamentally makes the system fair. He is also correct in pointing out that equal opportunity does not guarantee nor imply “[e]quality of outcomes.” If that was the case, then CMC should just randomly select applicants from its applicant pool, which resonates as absurdity. I am not a PPE major, nor did I apply, but I recognize and appreciate the importance of the program and the positive externalities it has on the rest of the CMC population.

    Also, Professor Hurley is a boss. That is all.


  15. Great article!
    I love the way you’ve explored both sides/positions.

    @Caroline- Would you have the same response/feel the same way had you not gotten into the program?

  16. There is a lot that RDS and PPE have in common.

    -exclusiveness and segmented funding directed at a small subset of students
    -scholarships given to those students as a result of their involvement in RDS/PPE
    -students in both programs have an inflated sense of entitlement (see comments from Caroline, etc. above)

    -PPE classes (and professors) are not open to all students, while there are no exclusive RDS classes
    -RDS pays for Michelle Chamberlain/CSC to help RDS students get jobs as a priority over other CMC students due to their involvement in RDS. It isn’t zero-sum, but it is much harder to get a job in finance when the chips are stacked toward RDS students
    -There is a TON of grade inflation in PPE, which most PPE students will admit privately
    -PPE excludes transfer students due to the prerequisites to the program

    • I would like to mention that I know three students who transferred at the beginning of their sophomore year and all got into the same PPE class. PPE is looking for a certain quality of student – I don’t know many CMC students who would give up their entire weekend to read 500 pages and write a 10 page paper due Monday, do you?

      • Right, b/c no one else at school has lots of reading or big papers to write. Get over yourself.

      • Right, b/c no one else at school has lots of reading or big papers to write. Get over yourself.

  17. There’s nothing about being in PPE that guarantees you success after graduation, and there’s nothing about not being in PPE that precludes you from success.

    Are PPE students, on balance, more successful than the average graduate? Maybe. I would also wager that all the students that graduate cum laude are also, on balance, more successful than the average graduate. And that CMC students, on balance, do better than the average college graduate nationwide. The simple fact is that PPE students applied for a competitive program, just like everything else is competitive.

    Are there perks to the PPE program? Yes. But PPE students are far from the only students at CMC with merit based scholarships, or in a merit based academic program. Theoretically, it might be harder for a transfer student to get in, but there are 3 in the class of 2012. That’s better than other competitive programs, like AISS.

    Finally, PPE works because it’s small and the classes form close relationships. It fosters strong argumentation and vigorous discussion in a competitive setting. PPE seminars are entirely discussion, and there is never a lull. How many other classes at CMC are like that? If the PPE program at CMC was more like Pomona’s, participants would just learn less.

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