CMC Considers Expanding Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program

Claremont McKenna College is considering adding a second group of 10-14 students to its Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program, effectively doubling enrollment in the competitive specialized major. 

“There have been conversations about possibly being able to have two small cohorts for PPE, and there’s been some interest from alums to support that endeavor, but I don’t know if everything’s been completely resolved,” said Robert Day School of Economics and Finance Dean Brock Blomberg, who teaches the economics classes in the PPE major.

Modeled after the PPE program at Oxford University, the program currently admits 10-14 students during the fall of their sophomore year who take a predetermined track of classes as a group. The second group of students would not increase the current class sizes; rather, there would be an additional set of classes each semester to accommodate the increased enrollment.

“There is a donor in view who wants to fund a new professor in the philosophy department dedicated in part to looking after a new second section of PPE,” said Ward Elliott, who teaches the politics portion of the major. “If you could have, without any drain on CMC’s general funds, a new section of PPE, it would be pretty hard to decline such an offer and then tell the 14 other CMC students ‘No’ as well.”

The program received a total of 38 applications from the class of 2016, according to Elliott.

Blomberg said that the college’s trustees, faculty members, and other constituencies still need to be consulted extensively before the proposal moves forward, but that it has potential to play out. 

“If we could allow for two small tracks and still allow for a shared experience, I think that model could work," he said. “It’s sad that many students come to CMC and are qualified for the program, but we have to make a decision because of space to not let them be a part of PPE. It’s disappointing." 

"One of the opportunities with having two cohorts is that we can make them smaller, something like 10-12 students in each, and still admit more students into the program," he added.

Elliot also said that he thinks that it is unfortunate that the program must reject qualified students every year, but he errs on the side of established success.

“I’m not eager to change something that seems to me a winning game, but it surely has costs for the kids that don’t get in,” Elliott said.

He said that he fears competition between the two cohorts.

“If there are two PPE cohorts with the same qualification, then there needs to be some kind of mechanism for equalizing them,” Elliott said. “My guess is that they’d become ferocious rivals with one another, but I could be wrong.”

Some PPE students expressed concerns about the proposed expansion. 

“I think there could be a problem with opening up more spots, not because I like the exclusivity and think more PPE students would 'poison' the small, tight-knit character of the program,” PPE student David Leathers CM ’15 wrote in an e-mail to TSL

Rather, he said, he is concerned about its impact on the academic aspect of the program. 

“I think more spots would present the false sense to students that PPE is a good fit for them," Leathers wrote. "Most people think PPE is like a nice sampling plate of 3 fascinating subjects, which is why the program attracts a lot of applicants. But it really isn't. It is one major exploring the interdisciplinary nature of philosophy, politics and economics, and all 3 of the subjects are taught differently because of this intention."

Rae Brookshire CM ’16, who is part of the most recently admitted PPE class, said in an e-mail to TSL that she sees promise in the addition of a second cohort of students, as long as it does not interfere with the program's structure. 

“If the program could be expanded to include more qualified students without compromising a high level of commitment or conversation, I could see merit in such a proposal,” she wrote.

As a separate proposal, Elliott suggested developing an interdisciplinary major similar in approach to PPE but combining different subjects. 

“I would like to see something more along the line of having something with the same teaching methods but with different subjects, such as history and literature, or philosophy and public affairs; something other than a second competing PPE, for it would be a competing rival, but not competing for exactly the same niche,” he said.