Thoughts on Harvard

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.

*Legacies, apparently, have a much higher chance of getting into Harvard.  So there’s that.

43 Responses to “Thoughts on Harvard”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    “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.”

    My elite university has this same pathology, and is why I rarely take undergrads in my lab. The vast majority are just looking to check shit off on their resume list while unable and unwilling to focus the slightest attention on anything of depth.

  2. Pamela Says:

    Harvard and other Ivys are great for graduate degrees. But for undergraduate degrees, a more reasonably-priced school is a better bet. Preferably one without legacy admissions.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It should be noted that for low income families, the ivies will usually be less expensive than the state flagship. Big endowments bring costs down quite a bit.

  3. Grad Lurker Says:

    I had the same impression of Harvard before coming here for graduate school (I went to a SLAC for undegrad), but I think there has been a lot of undergraduate-teaching reform over the past decade; I was pleasantly surprised. In my department, the undergrad classes are always taught by professors and the professors who actually care about teaching are assigned to teach the undergraduate courses. Although the introductory classes are large (with lectures supplemented by small sections taught by grad students), the intermediate and advanced classes are just as small and interactive as at my SLAC. What I consider the main disadvantage compared to a SLAC is that outside their majors the undergraduates here don’t usually take in-depth intermediated or advanced classes, which I think had a big influence on my writing and critical thinking skills.

    I completely agree about the undergraduates being overcommitted to extra-curriculars — so many stressed out, crying students! But that was true of a lot of students at my SLAC too.

    Just weighing in with some possible reassurance, in case DC1 or DC2 ends up being stubbornly set on attending Harvard. :)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Gotta be a shorter time than the last decade! Also your big state schools will have the same situation for their upper-level seminars. And some things will be major dependent– I imagine their Classics department (assuming they have one) never gets giant classes

      • Grad Lurker Says:

        It may be correlated with Drew Faust becoming president; the other fun new thing is that junior profs actually get tenure sometimes now. Upper-level seminars are the most fun part of college, so I’m glad no one’s missing out.

        I’ve seen this list circulating recently. Unsurprisingly, engineering colleges dominate the top:

        (Note: It’s only for graduates whose highest degree is a BA/BS.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Hm… they’ve mislabeled my undergraduate institution. Mine also has a big ROI once financial aid is taken into account– high sticker price, lots of financial aid.

  4. NoTrustFund Says:

    I work under the assumption that I’ll have little say on where my kids go to college. They’ll have there own opinions combined with the admissions lottery leaves little say for me. Obviously I can guide and influence…

    I have a much younger cousin and I’m really encouraging her to apply to Harvard because of the amazing grants offered to lower income families. The progress Harvard had made in the past few years on financial aide is amazing.

    On a somewhat related note, I always wonder if giving to my alma maters will make a difference in admission for my kids, especially since we’ll never be a big donor. Right now I only give to my undergrad institution and that’s because I was giving such generous financial aide. I’ll worry about this more when my kids are a little older and I get a better sense if what type of school may be a good fit for them.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      There’s always hoping for the bequest…

      They do say that the legacy bonus is precisely because it increases financial donations.

      It isn’t just Harvard that does the boffo aid for low income families– many of the ivies now have a flat policy for families under 75K or so. (I should really look that up… when I was in grad school it was 50K, which I know because there was a sign next to the wall where I sat for inner-city high school math tutoring sessions, but I thought I’d heard it had increased to 75K.)

      • NoTrustFund Says:

        It has definitely increased. I want to say harvard’s is even higher than 75. Harvard has a great online calc. If I wasn’t on my phone I’d post the link.

      • becca Says:

        Simple answer from Harvard’s FAQs- no family contribution required if income is under 65k (assuming no enormous assets). No more than 10% family income required if income is 65-110k (not sure how that compares to standard FAFSA EFC).

    • hush Says:

      “I always wonder if giving to my alma maters will make a difference in admission for my kids, especially since we’ll never be a big donor.” It will make absolutely no difference unless you give a very large gift in the 7 to 8-figure range. Remember that about 70% of Harvard legacies are still denied admission.

  5. Cloud Says:

    I didn’t even try for the Ivies when I was applying for college. I didn’t know about the grade inflation and the grad student teachers- I wasn’t that sophisticated when I was choosing where to apply. Once I got to college, I was a bit surprised by how much prestige meant to some people- there were some of my classmates who were clearly quite bitter that they didn’t get into an Ivy. And when I later told people where I was going to grad school, one woman actually said “oh, you couldn’t get into MIT?” I know prestige can be important, but I prefer experiences. My undergrad experience was exactly what I needed. I don’t think the Harvard experience would have been as good for me.

    As for my kids… I assume I’ll get to make some suggestions and give some advice, but that the decision will be theirs. I suppose that if we’re paying a significant portion of the tuition, we’ll get a veto, but we haven’t really thought about that yet! We have another 10 years before we need to start figuring it all out….

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Man, wordpress just disappeared the comment I made without me even touching anything.

      In any case, some people have a weird east coastal bias. Obviously midwesterners don’t think that University of Chicago is worse than any ivies.

      • becca Says:

        I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know of any economists, Midwestern or otherwise, that rank University of Chicago as anything but on par with an Ivy (and actually better than some of the Ivies). Although political views can impact one’s opinion for econ in general- I know some progressive liberals who are dismissive of ANYONE from University of Chicago because of how much of the econ has been used for regressive malarky.

        Personally, as a Midwesterner, I’d actually rate U of Chicago with Vanderbilt more than Harvard. Part of that is that I inherited my Dad’s snobbery about Nobels vs. Swedish bank prizes, and part is that Chicago isn’t tops in my field. Chicago does not generally make the top 25 in NIH funding (in 2010 it ranked 28th, after University of Alabama, Birmingham, for example). That said, even though Johns Hopkins has a zillion dollars of NIH funding, I’d never say it’s *better* than U Chicago, because Hopkins is really so much stronger in biomedical stuff than anything else. Hopkins : biomedical :: University of Chicago : economics. Harvard is solid in most things to a greater degree than either.
        Which is all very sad for me, as I would infinitely rather live in Chicago than Baltimore OR even Boston.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        apparently wordpress decided to make that comment disappear too… some secret about UChicago, I guess

        So I’ll shorten what I had said before: UChicago graduate economics rankings have nothing to do with undergrad rankings. There’s also a theoretical schism between UChicago and Cambridge school for econ. On top of that, under any ranking, Chicago econ is rated higher than most ivies (though not Harvard or Princeton, possibly not yale).

      • Cloud Says:

        I can report that I took not one single econ class and was still allowed to graduate. I did read Smith. But also Marx. And a bunch of other dead white guys. I was a science major, and found my undergrad science courses to be universally high quality, and also universally taught by professors not grad students. I think the only class I had that was taught by someone other than a tenure track professor was my first year calculus class.

        Regardless of who teaches the classes, though, the thing I most appreciate when I look back on my undergrad experience was the way that I was held to high standards, and the confidence I gained when I found myself able to measure up to those standards. I suspect that experience is available many places, but I do not think I would have gotten the same measure of confidence from a place that practiced grade inflation. For me, the experience of working damn hard and earning A’s was an important one.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Maybe anonymous commenter should have said, “When your DC1 flunks out from UChicago, won’t you be sorry.”

      • Cloud Says:

        Yeah, I knew people who did manage to flunk out… But they’re doing well now! Flunking out of college is not necessarily a career-ending thing.

  6. rented life Says:

    I don’t think I’d want much of a hand in where my kid goes to college. My parents were rather particular about where I went–stay close, don’t go far away–and as a result I spent my first year at a school that was over priced and I hated being there. I transferred out, but with mom’s words still ringing in my ears about not going too far away or being adventurous, I really feel like I sold myself short. I don’t want to place that limit on anyone else. Right now our niece is in college and anything she says she wants to try (internships far away, study abroad), I encourage because I was pushed not to try such things.

  7. bogart Says:

    Hmmm. I admit, I’m pretty blasee about this. I tend to tell kids that what they do once they get to college is a lot more important than where they go. I’m sure at the tails (particularly the low end one, I’d guess) where one goes is not totally irrelevant, and I can understand where there may be networking advantages to some places over others.

    I tend to think it’s better for kids to start college not knowing what they want to major in and to pick a place big enough that they can explore that issue pretty broadly, but I can see where some good SLACs (including the one I used to teach at) might not excel on the breadth criterion yet still be great places to get an education.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Most of the majors that SLACs tend not to have (engineering, nutrition sciences, physical therapy, etc.) tend to be majors that you have to declare prior to entering a big university anyway. (I think.)

      • bogart Says:

        I don’t know. Comparing “my” SLAC to the large state flagship I live near, among the things one could not major in at the SLAC but can at the flagship without an obvious need to know before arriving, just picking from the A-M portion of the list, are archaeology, public health (BS; I found that inside Biostats, so it fits the A-M requirement!), several “classics” BAs (Ancient Greece, Latin …), communications, exercise science, linguistics. And there are others, e.g. undergrad minors in marine sciences, one in urban planning, and a bunch of pretty relevant languages — Arabic, Chinese, Hindi-Urdu, Japanese, Korean — are options at the flagship but none of those things are covered at all at the SLAC. So I remain unconvinced, BUT I totally get where the SLAC learning environment may be a far better choice for many students.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The state uni in my hometown requires you to declare public health (not in biostats) and exercise science prior to entering. It doesn’t offer urban planning or a good number of those relevant languages. My SLAC offered linguistics and communications (as well as some related majors that I bet your uni doesn’t offer not being in that part of the country). The classics major at the state uni in my hometown has one or two people in it each year… I think my SLAC had more classics majors than that with a fraction of the student body.

        Some schools don’t offer some majors just because not all schools can offer all majors. Heck, there are even SLACs that offer engineering (Swarthmore), just most of them don’t. Harvey Mudd is rare in that it doesn’t make you declare which kind of engineer you want to be before entering.

        Heck, I’ve been astonished at some of the courses of study my flagship R1 doesn’t offer (that my SLAC offers).

      • bogart Says:

        Yes, fair enough on all counts. Realistically I’ll likely get to contribute once to someone making this decision (my kid), and it’s impossible to predict now how if at all I’ll want to shape that decision. But clearly it is something I’ve thought about! As I may or may not have commented before here, my stepkids were told to (and did) limit their applications to in-state public schools (i.e. our state uni system), and I do think that was not right. They might well have chosen to go (or been limited to going) in-state, but for reasons you’ve spelled out elsewhere, I don’t think it was sensible or appropriate to limit their choices before we even had the opportunity to know what those choices might involve. Oh well!

      • Cloud Says:

        Harvey Mudd is an awesome school. I have yet to meet someone who graduated from Mudd who didn’t impress me! (I know, not strictly relevant, but I had to add that- for people in the know and in technical lines of work, a degree from Mudd opens more doors than a degree from Harvard would.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I have. :)

        But no doubt from a different major.

      • Emily @ evolvingPF Says:

        I love seeing shout-outs for my alma mater – thanks, Cloud! Plenty of times when I stated where I attended college I got a confused “What? Harvard Med?” back. HMC actually offers a single general engineering degree – one of the few if not only left in the country. Plus, we didn’t have to declare a major until the end of our third semester, which was great for me as I took up until the last minute to decide between physics and engineering, something I couldn’t have easily done at other schools.

  8. Mutant Supermodel Says:

    Assuming I don’t become a super rich person in the next 8-12 years, I’ll encourage my kids to apply to a mix of colleges and to look into several types. I would definitely encourage Ivies because of scholarships but I’m also a fan of small liberal arts colleges. There is actually one in Florida I wish had either existed or I had known about when I was in high school. It sounds AMAZING. If I still have a job at this University, that would be even easier for me to do because they have a great option here if they don’t get something amazing elsewhere.

  9. Flavia Says:

    There’s much too much emphasis placed on the alleged “prestige” of certain colleges, and it’s ridiculous to think that anyone’s life is ruined by not getting into his top college — or even one of his top ten colleges! There are a ton of institutions where any given kid can thrive, whether they’re name-brand or a local institution that no one outside of the region has heard of. I always believed that, but I especially believe it now that I teach in an excellent department at a regional comprehensive college that isn’t even a safety school for most of the area’s smartest high school students.

    All that said, I also think there’s a boring species of Ivy-bashing (not in this post! but in the broader culture) that’s as disproportionate and inaccurate as the fevered belief that the Ivies are the ONLY schools. Both attitudes mischaracterize the institutions. My spouse went to Harvard (long before I knew him) and I went to Harvard-but-for-the-architecture, and we both found our schools to be intellectually exciting places with dedicated teachers and phenomenal, hard-working fellow-students (my core group of friends from college remain my closest friends). Is that kind of experience available elsewhere? Absolutely. And there are certainly both slackers and entitled rich kids at Harvard — though frankly no more than are to be found at the local flagship or at selective liberal arts colleges.

    What’s overrated about Harvard is the premium placed on the name, relative to many other excellent schools, both public and private; a degree from Harvard is not some magical sign of Life Success. But the education and the social experience (by which I do NOT mean the party scene or the future professional connections one makes, but the experience of being in a small place totally surrounded by geeky, intense, curious late-adolescents) is genuinely great.

    My parents (first-gen college grads) cheered my academic successes in high school, but they didn’t raise me to think I was any better than anyone else, and they didn’t give two hoots where I went to college. I hope that if I have kids I’ll raise them similarly.

  10. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    I will agree it is hard to flunk out of Harvard. But at Princeton — which probably has similar stats on grade inflation — I had to work pretty hard. And I didn’t get straight As. Maybe I was not as smart as my classmates. Many of whom were very smart. I thought I learned a lot. If my kids wanted to go, applied, and got in, I’d be happy if they wanted to go there.

  11. becca Says:

    Guess what showed up in my twitter feed today? A look at how well private colleges are doing at charging Pell grant recipients low tuition!

    Go Amherst!

  12. BMGM Says:
    Harvey Mudd has a policy: pay for a BA/BS, get a MS free. If you graduate in good standing from their undergrad program, you qualify to stay tuition free for a coursework masters. Some people do a bit of research with faculty to see if they like it enough to pursue a research PhD elsewhere. That makes HM a high ROI school.

    I know a Harvard undergrad who went on to earn a PhD in science. She didn’t want to go to work for Wall Street, but it was the only way she could finish paying off her student loans fast enough to start a family while young enough.

    She wishes she’d gone to a state flagship school w/o debt and before her PhD. Then, working as a scientist would be a more viable option.

    Yeah, she went to Harvard and earns a lot. But, she’s doing something that she doesn’t believe has any redeeming value other than a big paycheck. I wouldn’t call that a success or a high ROI.

  13. hush Says:

    I did not attend Harvard. Everyone I happen to know personally who went there for undergrad is actually a cool, down-to-earth person who has either a parent or two who is an alum, and/or they were recruited athletes. I wish I could say they were jerks because maybe that would make for a better story, but no – quite the opposite: stellar, solid peeps, all. Despite not attending Harvard, I eventually went to grad school with a handful of Harvard alums and worked the same jobs as my peers who did go to Harvard (and Yale and Stanford and Wharton and Notre Dame… ), so I suppose my degree (summa cum laude – I tried damn hard!) from a top school that is not an Ivy was just as valuable to me as a Harvard degree would have been. Plus I met my future DH at my “lesser school” – so yeah, I’m still very happy with my college choice years after the fact.

    If my kids want to go to Harvard, I’ll support them. If my kids want to attend a fancy boarding school far away from our home, yes, I’ll support them. If my kids don’t want to attend college at all, I’ll honestly be disappointed for about a week, but ultimately I think I will come around and support them. None of the above are the choices I made, but 5 and 3 years into their lives and I can already tell we are very different people. Which is nice.

  14. Jenny F. Scientist, PhD Says:

    This was also my experience as a grad student at a fancy-pants Ivy school. Great for grad education, but we literally had to PETITION THE DEAN to give someone a failing grade that they had earned by, say, getting 20% on every test.

    I met plenty of smart, dedicated, interesting undergrads at Fancy-Pants Ivy, but I also met a lot of kids who were really good at memorizing stuff and not very good at thinking. “But titanium is a biological ion… isn’t it?” This from a pre-med.

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