Webb Institute still tuition-free after 125 years

Webb Institute located in Glen Cove.

Webb Institute located in Glen Cove. Photo Credit: Chris Ware

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Webb Institute, the exclusive naval engineering college on the Glen Cove waterfront, inaugurates a new president this week as the school enters its 125th year -- now one of the nation's last private colleges to offer full-tuition scholarships to all of its students.

R. Keith Michel, former chief executive of Herbert Engineering Corp., a California-based ship design firm, officially becomes the college's 15th president in a ceremony at the school on Thursday.

"It's a special place for a special student," said Michel, 62, a Melville native who graduated in the institute's Class of 1973. "We expect a lot of students. But if a student comes here, their life will be transformed."

Eighty-two students currently are enrolled at Webb, housed in the picturesque 1912 summer estate of businessman Herbert L. Pratt.

The "Webbies," as the students are called, are required to live on campus and are studying for the only degree offered there: a bachelor of science in naval architecture and marine engineering.

While tuition and fees continue to climb at colleges across the country, Webb Institute's ability to draw on its $55.6 million endowment to provide this unique no-tuition education was intended by its founder, William H. Webb, a New York resident and a prominent steamship builder of the 19th century.

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"At a place like Webb, everyone is admitted on an equal footing," said George Campbell, of Manhattan, chairman of the college's board of trustees. "When you remove the financial aspect of the college conversation and everyone understands that their peers are there on the same basis -- there's no questioning or doubting whether anyone belongs. There's a trust. This particular culture is very rare in higher education today."

Campbell, a theoretical physicist who stepped down in 2011 as president of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, understands the culture well. Until last spring, when that Manhattan school's board announced it would begin to charge students on a sliding scale in fall 2014, Cooper Union was perhaps the best-known tuition-free college in the nation.

Webb's students hail from across the country, with several graduating at the top of their high school classes. Many said they passed up acceptances to prestigious engineering programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Virginia Institute of Technology and Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

About 16 percent of the current student body is from Long Island -- more than double the 7 percent of a decade ago. The classes are primarily made up of white men, but the school is attracting more women.

One of the future goals, Campbell said, is to continue to market to women but also reach out to qualified minority students. Currently, there are no black students, two Hispanic students, 10 Asian students and 17 women.

There's little separation between schoolwork and free time. Webbies attend at least eight hours of class daily and say they tackle anywhere from four to 10 hours of homework most nights. Before earning their degree, students are required to design a vessel as their senior project.

The main campus building, tucked away behind multimillion-dollar homes and beyond wrought iron gates, has panoramic views of Long Island Sound -- and on clear days, even parts of the Manhattan skyline are in view.

The students live by an honor code, which allows for self-governance, and all but the most serious infractions are judged in a court of student jurors.

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"This is the only school in the world where you can have an unproctored, take-home test that is closed book, closed notes and timed and no one will cheat," said Nolan Conway, 19, a junior from Hauppauge.

Theft is nonexistent, students say. Dorm rooms are left unlocked. Untended computers and other electronics, jewelry and even wallets are untouched -- even in hallways, the library and common areas such as the Tea Room. When the staff leaves at 4 p.m., the students run everything, including a kitchen and a pub in the basement where you are expected to put money in a pot and log the items you've consumed.

"There's an atmosphere for learning here that I didn't expect," said Samantha Griswold, 21, who graduated third in her class of about 460 students at Bay Shore High School. "Even though there's so much work, tests just seem less stressful. Homework seems less stressful, too."

Paid winter internships are the highlight of the educational experience, with sophomores spending eight weeks working in a shipyard, juniors aboard a seafaring vessel and seniors in the offices of design firms. The internships take the students all over the world -- California, Dubai, Hawaii and Indonesia.

Another rarity: 100 percent of the students get job placement upon graduation. Many go on to work in the maritime industry, designing or building ships for commercial use, from large carriers to leisure yachts. Others work for defense contractors or energy companies who do offshore oil extraction or wind-capturing. Some, however, take other career paths like finance or technology fields that don't involve boats at all. The alumni pool includes doctors, lawyers and at least one priest.

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"We are very water-oriented people, whether we know it or not," said alumnus Joseph Cuneo, founder and president of Energy Transportation Corp., a 1973 start-up that became one of the largest operators of natural gas carriers in the world. "The demand for Webb graduates always exceeded the supply."

Cuneo, 78, of Dobbs Ferry, said he didn't think he was going to be accepted in Webb's Class of 1957, even though he was graduating fifth in his class at the Bronx High School of Science. His parents didn't have much money at the time, so the full scholarship was a big draw.

"I remember the first exam I had at Webb -- it was physics. We were asked to design a refrigerator that would work on the moon," Cuneo recalled. "I said, 'Wait a second. We didn't learn that.' "

Cuneo later went on to Harvard Business School. At the time his company was sold in the 1990s, it was worth $55 billion.

"The workload is heavy and there are always a few casualties along the way," he joked of his alma mater on the North Shore. "But it is the problem-solving skills and the culture of Webb that creates leaders."

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