An In-Depth Look at the PPE Program

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."

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.