Getting to Know Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, (SLO) nestled on the California coast, lives and breathes its motto, ‘Learning by Doing,’ in engineering, business, architecture, viticulture, and all its newer majors such as statistics.

Consequently, employers admire and seek SLO graduates. However, joining the ranks of Musty the Mustang is becoming ever more competitive. For fall 2014 less than 31% of applicants were admitted. Getting into many of SLO’s showcase majors, such as engineering, business, science or architecture is tough.  The engineering programs, for example, accepted less than 23% of applicants.

SLO has modest origins. Established in 1901as a vocational high school, it awarded its first BA in 1942 and its first master’s in 1967. While SLO’s academic prowess grew, so too did the campus’s acreage. The campus today is 6,000 acres (though Cal Poly owns 9,600 acres—it is the largest land-owning public university in California, with UC Davis securely in second with 7,300 acres. Interestingly, the Stanford land trust is 8,180 acres—well shy of SLO’s holdings).

Yet it’s what’s on all these acres that matters. To begin, there are more than 80 state-of-the-art laboratories, and if you’re into Marine Sciences, the 3000-foot Cal Poly Pier, donated by Unocal in 2001, contains a classroom, dry lab facility and a conference room with a 360 degree panorama of San Luis Bay.  The recently constructed Baker Center for Science and Math is centrally located on campus, and is completely designed around the concept of ‘learning by doing,’ with 189,000 square feet of labs, classrooms and collaborative study areas. The intent of the university is that every student who attends will have a class in Baker—it will be the center of each one’s educational experience.

Should the demands of Linear Algebra require a respite, Pismo, Morro and Avilla beaches are within 10-15 minutes of campus (Surfline.com ranked Cal Poly SLO #3 surfing college in the country, but bring a wetsuit, the water is cold). Then there is the Rec Center with 7 basketball courts, multiple swimming pools, a 3-lane indoor track, hundreds of cardio vascular machines, 4 gyms, 3 studios, and racquetball courts. Or if you prefer simply a place to just read and relax, there is Dexter Lawn, right next to the Robert F. Kennedy Library.

Because students must declare majors when applying, and switching majors once enrolled is not encouraged, SLO has what is termed by some as an ‘upside down curriculum.’ From day one students take a combination of major courses along with general education courses. While unusual, it does better position students to apply to internships, or join undergraduate research projects, well before the end of their sophomore year.   

SLO is by no means a small school; its total undergraduate population is 19,000 (and will be expanding over the next 5 years according to expansion plans well underway). Yet, it somehow manages to maintain a small, close-knit ambience. Though this might be attributed to the town atmosphere that pervades San Luis Obispo, SLO keeps its class sizes manageable: over 70% of classes contain 20-49 students. Moreover, most classes are taught by actual professors (not teacher assistants) who are there primarily to teach and are known to be intelligent, accessible, helpful, and personable.

While all this sounds like a utopia, SLO does have its shortcomings. Registration is known to be challenging. One student remarked that the system changes every couple of years making the process even more frustrating. Additionally, after freshman year, many students live off campus and commute to campus by auto: parking is expensive and scarce.

If you can contend with some of the downsides, the upsides are enormous.  One other upside is that every student must finish his or her major with a student project, an ample capstone that applies all elements of the major. From this caldron of creativity has come ‘Jamba Juice.’  SLO just keeps learning by doing. You might want to join in.