Recently, I had the opportunity to tour the Webb Institute, a tiny engineering school housed in an old mansion right on the Long Island Sound in Glen Cove, NY. Said mansion is “The Braes”, the former home of Herbert Pratt, whose father was one of the founders of Standard Oil. The Braes was built in 1912 (just nine years after the Pratts tore down their original estate which they apparently didn’t like very much), and the Pratts lived there for about 30 years until Mr. Pratt’s death. Shortly after, their estate was sold to the Webb Institute for use as their new campus, and the school relocated there from the Bronx in 1945.
If you watch a lot of TV and movies, you may actually already be familiar with the mansion. The school allows for filming during the summer months when classes aren’t in session, and movies like Batman Forever and Great Expectations and shows such as Person of Interest, Gotham, The OA, Madam Secretary and more have all been filmed there. Part of the revenue earned from this filming has helped to ensure all students can attend Webb tuition-free, which is pretty awesome! Students do pay for room and board and have to buy a school-supplied laptop, but still. Free tuition in this day and age anywhere is amazing.
The Webb Institute isn’t just any old engineering school, though. Their focus is on naval architecture, and all students pursue and graduate with a dual bachelor’s degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. The school was initially the Webb Academy, founded in 1889 by William Webb, who was a shipbuilder. When he began his own shipbuilding education, ships were mostly made out of wood, and shipbuilding instruction was taught mainly through apprenticeships. As times and technology changed and more ships began to be made out of metal, Webb realized that a school specifically for shipbuilding may better equip the shipbuilders of the future. And so, the Webb Academy was established.
Upon his death 10 years later, his fortune, acquired through his own shipyard business, was all transferred to Webb Institute and helped to create its endowment, which has grown to a whopping $75 million (yet another reason the school can offer free tuition!) The current enrollment at Webb is only 104 students total, so an endowment of that size goes a long way. Additionally, Webb has the highest alumni giving rate in the country with 76% of its 1,100 living alumni donating annually (as compared to the 62% of alumni donating at the second highest rate at Princeton).
Alumni were also instrumental in raising funds for a new academic center that is under construction and due to open Fall 2019. Currently, the former Pratt mansion is a 3-story building with the top 2 floors being used as both classroom and dorm space. Once the new academic center is open, the classroom space in the main building will be converted to dorm rooms, enabling Webb to continue to grow and ensure the campus community stays intact.
All Webb students presently live on campus, and you can tell that it’s a tight-knit community and that the estate truly feels like a home to the students. Our tour guide mentioned students often walk around barefoot, and later in our tour, we actually saw several doing so. (Apparently there was an uproar when students saw the plans for the new academic center because they didn’t want to have to put shoes on to go to class–a concession was made and a tunnel will be built to connect the main building to the academic center without requiring students to walk outside.)
Webb is also unique in that they don’t allow desks in the dorm rooms. Instead, students have their own desks in the classrooms and their teachers all rotate through the classrooms rather than the students traveling from room to room. So when they do homework, they go to their own workspace in their classrooms, and we saw several students in there working together on the day we visited.
There is a strict honor code, and Webb ensures that they recruit students who are willing to follow the code and contribute to the community. Students are expected to self-regulate, which is necessary for out-of-class tests (in which they are told not to use books or request help from peers) and also for ensuring their on-campus pub can remain open. Their rule is that all students can be in the pub but you must be 21+ to drink. If anyone breaks the rules, the pub gets closed for good, and so the students all play their part in ensuring there is a strong community in place and a commitment to that honor code (and they’re also responsible for keeping the place clean).
Our tour guide, Lauren, is the current head of admissions at Webb. She took us around the campus and highlighted some of the other special features at the school, and she told us more about the curriculum as well. All students essentially pursue the same curriculum at Webb. During freshman and sophomore year, they all take the same classes, which are fairly heavy in math and science but also include woodworking, metalworking, and mechanics. In their junior and senior years, they get to take 3 electives tailored to their interests, and the school will hire faculty to teach them if they don’t have anyone on the faculty already who can do so.
Additionally, all students do a two-month internship each year between their fall and spring semesters. Freshman year it’s in a shipbuilding facility, sophomore year they’re on a ship in the engine room or as part of the deck crew, and then junior and senior year they intern at design firms. We met some students who told us about their internships, such as working in a yacht shipyard in Washington state and serving as deck crew on a transit from Australia to Antarctica. Really cool stuff! When they graduate, they have 8 months of work experience related to the field, and with most students getting 4-5 job offers, Webb gets to celebrate a 100% job placement rate after graduation.
On our tour, we visited the library where we saw binder after binder of senior thesis projects, a requirement for all seniors to graduate. We also checked out the auditorium, which had previously been the location of the Pratt’s old salt-water pool when they lived on the estate. The pub and student kitchen are located in what used to be the old Pratt bowling alley. And interestingly, the garage, which used to include a turntable for Mr. Pratt’s fancy cars, has Guastavino tiles covering the ceiling! And of course, one of the highlights of the school is its location right on the Sound and their very own private beach. The views are just spectacular and you can see for miles and miles.
We also made our way onto the beach via a very cool tunnel that connects the material science lab to the laundry room, which opens up onto the beach. (The tunnel was previously used by the Pratt family’s employees who would enter the house via the tunnel rather than through the front door. It was apparently also active during Prohibition, as evidenced by a $12,000 fine Mr. Pratt received for all the champagne that was discovered on his property at the time…)
All throughout the school, you’ll see model ships EVERYWHERE. There is a Webb tradition that once you get your first big project, a model of your ship gets sent to campus and so there are A LOT of them around. Students also get unlimited access to 3-D printers to make their own models during their academic career, and there’s a model basin and float channel for testing them out, too.
We wrapped up our tour back in the main building, and I think everyone on our tour was envious that we didn’t get to go to Webb ourselves! It seems like such a cool school, and the students appear to have an amazing experience and gain exposure to incredible opportunities throughout their four years. Their impressive 95% retention rate leads me to believe that Webb must be doing something right and that students truly are happy with the unique educational experience they’re getting there.
And so maybe you’re done with school and can’t go to Webb yourself, but perhaps you have a kid who might want to? Lauren mentioned that they offer a two-week summer camp, in case you have younger kids who want to test the waters, so to speak. For their degree-program, though, only 60 applicants are invited to Webb during the admissions process. All have exceptional SAT and ACT scores, particularly in math, and each student comes to campus for an overnight and to meet with the president and faculty. Academic excellence is essential for success, but cultural fit is as well since Webb does have such a tight-knit community. 32 students will ultimately be offered a place, and typically around 28 will accept their offer. The school is co-ed, and about 25% are women despite the naval architecture workforce consisting of only about 7% women.
Personally, I don’t know what’s wrong with those 4 students who don’t accept their admission offer. How could you pass up the view of the Sound through the front window of the main hall?!?! 😉 You don’t need to know anything about boats to attend Webb, and 30% of graduates will end up leaving the naval architecture and marine engineering field to pursue non-boat related careers. But all the instructions IS taught through boats, and you do need to be interested in and intrigued enough by boats to want to learn through them. As a sailor, I personally find this very cool, and I love knowing that a place like Webb exists!