The other month on Wandering Scientist’s blog, an anonymous poster told me that I would regret it when the dean at Harvard calls to tell me that my child has flamed out, if ze gets in. (Why did said anon do that? I think because six year old DC1 does workbooks on weekends, and therefore must not be enjoying childhood?)
I responded that Harvard is a cakewalk for kids who get in and my kids most likely wouldn’t have any trouble there. And I wouldn’t encourage them to apply there because I’d hope they would go someplace where they’d get a better education.
Seriously, Harvard has really high grade inflation (yes, there “have been studies”). They have large lectures taught by graduate students with little practice, both their own and graduate students from other schools who they hire for peanuts. (What they offer to adjuncts in my field is a joke.) Many flagship state schools give better undergraduate educations, and, depending on your parents’ income and the state you’re from, at a considerably lower price.
Harvard is great for graduate school. But undergrad, it’s an easy A. Very difficult to flunk out or even to get more than a few Bs. You have to work at not getting As. I suspect the grade inflation is to keep parents happy given that so many classes are large lectures taught by people who are not yet famous professors. (They argue it isn’t really inflation, just the student body quality, but outside metrics disagree.) [Exception: One of the colleges doesn't have the same grade inflation that the others do-- it curves to a B rather than to an A- or A. I always feel sorry for those students. They can actually show up to class and do the work and still get the occasional C!]
Now students at Harvard do run themselves ragged, but not with schoolwork. Harvard tends to accept students who did a million extracurriculars as high school students and who try to do the same as college students. Many of them fail at that and do mediocre jobs at several things rather than focusing on doing well at a small number.
That’s not to say that Harvard isn’t a good school or there aren’t reasons to go to Harvard. Certainly the student body is elite and a kid can make great connections that will last a lifetime. There’s also the imprimatur on the resume. Exceptionally good students can get research assistant work. But all in all, I would put it up there with Michigan or Berkeley (both great State schools with the same problems at the undergrad level, though perhaps not so much killing with extracurriculars) in terms of the educational experience.
Personally, I prefer the SLAC model, and I know that ‘tech schools are far more challenging. If my kids want to go into a field that isn’t offered at a high quality SLAC, we’d be looking for schools with strong supportive programs in their area of interest. I can’t really see a good reason for recommending Harvard to my children. As a parent, I have concerns about the big ‘tech schools too, but if they really want to go, we’d have to talk about it. DC1 would definitely have to be able to emotionally manage that perfectionist streak that shows up from time to time.
Now, for a kid whose parents make under 75K [update: see comments for actual numbers], I think is the current number, Harvard is free. That would push it above the state flagship. There’s also some evidence suggesting that having an ivy on a resume helps out children with low SES although it has no effect on those from high SES backgrounds. (Our kids are high SES, even if their parents were not.)
As for whether or not my kids could get into Harvard, I know as well as anybody that at those levels it’s a crap shoot.* One of our friends from high school had straight As, perfect SATs and was the state math champion. He didn’t get into Harvard. After all, there are 50 state math champions. So he went to Stanford. (And did very well.)
Parents with gifted kids generally aren’t about competition. We’re more concerned about helping our kids fulfill their potential, something that can be a precarious business when the K-12 system isn’t set up to work with you. (Also, we’re too exhausted!) And no, a Harvard education isn’t a holy grail for us. We know better.