College Cousins: Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Olin College of Engineering

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Both located very close to Boston, these two universities stand just fifteen miles apart. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded in 1861, stands along the Charles River in Cambridge, while the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, founded in 1997, makes its suburban home in Needham amidst the digital powerhouses of the Route 128 Technology Corrirdor. MIT, of course, has been an innovation incubator since long, long before such language came into common use. In contrast, Olin, which opened its doors just before the dawn of the 21st century, is quickly making a major impact among engineering schools.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

It’s hardly enough to say that MIT is a science and technology school. One could certainly claim that it is the pre-eminent science and technology school in the world. Such was the conclusion of Quacquarelli Symonds, an organization specializing in education and study abroad, which in 2019 ranked MIT #1in its global survey of world universities for a seventh consecutive year.

It’s no surprise that MIT offers majors in numerous science and technology fields, but less widely known is the fact that MIT also has top-notch programs in architecture, business, the arts, and the humanities and social sciences. To provide its undergraduates with an outstanding comprehensive education, MIT not only maintains distribution requirements, but it also has a cross-registration program with its neighbor down Massachusetts Avenue, Harvard, allowing MIT students to take full advantage of its Crimson neighbor's offerings.

MIT declares its mission is to “advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.” It’s worth noting that “advancing knowledge” comes first, as MIT is ultimately cutting-edge research institution. That said, MIT offers extensive undergraduate research and experiential learning opportunities working with its world-class faculty, which makes for an exhilarating college experience.

Olin College of Engineering

Olin places its students at the heart of its mission to prepare “students to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world.” Its philosophy is premised on the belief that traditional engineering curricula are too narrow and delay hands-on education too long. Olin students not only start engineering classes in their first semester, they also dive into classes in entrepreneurship and the arts, humanities, and social sciences right away, so that their engineering coursework is fully grounded in critical thinking and current real-world challenges and opportunities.

The College takes a different approach than most universities, having no departments or tenured faculty, positing that this optimizes collaboration by all members of the Olin community. Olin currently offers three majors: Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Engineering -- the latter of which encompasses Computing, Design, BioEngineering, and Robotics. Moreover, the curriculum accommodates ‘explorers and creators’ by allowing students to customize or create their own concentration. Additionally, like the MIT-Harvard partnership, Olin promotes cross-registration opportunities with Babson, Brandeis, and Wellesley to increase the academic offerings available to its students.It also co-hosts a sustainability certificate program with Babson and Wellesley, further encouraging collaborative and interdisciplinary learning.

Is Olin, with its groundbreaking model, successful? Well, U.S. News thinks so, placing Olin at #3 in its 2019 rankings of undergraduate engineering programs in the United States. Princeton Review's 2019 rankings also put Olin in its the top 20 listings in ten categories, including best value, best professors, academic rigor, best dorms, and student happiness.


One last no-surprise fact about MIT and Olin: admission to both institutions is highly competitive. For the technologically minded, however, these two schools are hard to beat!


Originally published 2014; updated June 2019