Why Your Kids Shouldn't Go to Harvard (even if they could get in)

I fear that you will dismiss me out of hand, but after many years in higher education, I've come to strongly believe that Ivy universities, let alone less selective yet equally expensive ones (e.g., Boston U., Emory, Marquette, Syracuse, Tulane, U.S.C., U of Miami, Villanova) aren't worth the money. In my view, the middle class would be wisest to choose a college primarily based on price and geography.

I know, I know. You're afraid that in choosing a low-cost college, you'll save the money but shortchange your child: she'll miss out on the stellar education, superior students, and career advantages that a designer-label diploma brings. I believe that the evidence is clear that these fears are unjustified:

Stellar Education

Paradoxically, the quality of instruction at brand-name colleges is likely to be worse than at no-name institutions. Many professors interested in undergraduate teaching avoid places like Harvard or Stanford because teaching is all but ignored in hiring and promotion. The Carnegie Foundation's Ernest Boyer was only half-joking when he said, "Winning the campus teaching award is the kiss of death when it comes time for tenure." Class sizes at places like Harvard are unconscionable. A freshman or sophomore is likely to spend half of class time in an auditorium. How absurd that these places charge $150,000 for four years to educate our best and brightest yet have the nerve to so heavily use the cheapest, least effective method of instruction: the large lecture. Fact: prestigious universities are mainly in the business of doing research. As one astronomy professor at the University of California, Berkeley said, "Undergraduate teaching is a necessary evil."

So it's no surprise that the definitive review of the literature (Astin, 1997) finds absolutely no relationship between a college's cost and the amount of learning that accrues. Perhaps more surprising, a number of major studies (summarized in Pascarella et al, 1996) found that students, even high-ability students, learn as much at a community college (where teaching is Job One) as they would have had they spent their first two years at a four-year college. And the U.S. Department of Education (Adelman, 1999) found that students who, after the first two years, transfer to a four-year college, have the same chance of completing their bachelor's degree as those who started at four-year colleges. In short, there is no evidence that attending a high-sticker-price college results in greater learning.

Ivy-Caliber Students

Many low-cost colleges have patches of Ivy called the honors program: Ivy-caliber students taught in small classes by the institution's top professors. The honors program usually continues outside the classroom with optional honors residence halls and special extracurricular activities. And because an honors program is embedded in a regular campus, a student who wants to moderate the pressure, can do so by taking fewer honors classes and hanging out with non-honors students. This isn't an option at an Ivy League college. This is a more important benefit than might first be apparent. The second most common complaint at Harvard's student health service is stress and burnout.

Career Advantages

Although it's easier to make connections at a prestigious college, it's far from certain that you'll make connections that will actually help your career. As you'll see below, many, many students, having mortgaged their family's financial security by attending an expensive private college, graduate feeling disillusioned, even ripped off.

You might protest, "But look at the most successful people! So many came from places like Harvard and Yale."

Yes, Ivy graduates are disproportionately represented in top positions, but that doesn't mean the college was causal. On average, Ivy-caliber kids are smarter, come from better schools, and have brighter, better-connected parents. You probably could lock Ivy-caliber high school in a closet for the four years of college and, on average, they'd end up with much better careers than other students.

A study reported in the American Economic Review concluded that even in terms of earnings, "What matters most is not which college you attend, but what you did while you were there. (That means choosing a strong major, choosing professors carefully, getting involved in leadership activities, getting to know professors)...Measured college effects are small, explaining just one to two percent of the variance in earnings." (James, et al, 1989).

Loren Pope, in Colleges That Change Lives (Penguin, 1996) wrote that in 1994, "the New York Times reported that a quarter of Harvard's class of 1958 had lost their jobs, were looking for work, or on welfare, just when their careers should have been cresting...Many in the class of '58 thought their degrees ensured career success. They were wrong." The autobiographical sketches written for the 35th reunion "did not radiate with expressions of success and optimism" said author and Yale professor Erich Segal. Quite the contrary, they seemed like a litany of loss and disillusion." And Harvard was not alone. Alumni groups at other Ivy League schools, the author added, "are reporting that their members in growing numbers are suffering from the upheavals in corporate America. If there is a lesson in all this it is that a degree from a college like Harvard is no longer the lifetime guarantee of success in careers that it used to be."

In addition to the money savings of attending No-Name College versus Ol' Ivy, there's the enormous benefit of your child not having to prostitute himself to get in. It hurts me to see what Ivy aspirants do in their often futile attempt to get into these not-worth-it institutions. In tenth grade, they may sign up for PSAT prep tutors--and the PSAT doesn't even count! They go on to take SAT prep courses on top of all the rest of their courses, and may take the SAT two or three times in hopes (usually vain) of getting a score improved-enough to enhance their chances of admission. In eleventh grade, they start taking Advanced Placement classes that are often filled with material that is hard but not important. After school, they join clubs or do community service mainly because it will look good to the colleges. Kids who don't give a damn about rowing a boat, suddenly in the eleventh grade, force themselves to wake at three in the morning every day to freeze their butts off rowing a boat so they can list "crew team" on their college applications. In summers, although they may be sick of school, they enroll in yet more school by attending overpriced college-based summer programs in the unrealistic hope that it will impress the colleges. In senior year, they complete 8-10 long, essay-laden applications to hard-to-get-into colleges to maximize their chances that at least one will say yes. And as a reward, each year, many thousands of these Ivy aspirants are rejected from all Ivys to which they applied and end up attending a perfectly fine and less expensive college to which they could have been admitted without having had to endure that ordeal.

Just think, if your child applies only to easier-to-get-into public colleges, she can have a more rewarding high school life, in which she did activities because she finds them interesting rather than just to impress. And yes, attending Low-Cost College means you're far less likely to risk your financial security.

How I Recommend That Your Child Select a College

1. Unless your annual income is under $40,000, which would make you likely to get significant cash (not loan) financial aid, or are too wealthy to care, your child should apply to colleges with a low sticker price. He will learn as much, you'll save a fortune, and you will spare your child the inordinate stress and waste of time of trying to get into colleges that well may not be worth the money.

The following, in my view, are top-value colleges. In addition to a relatively low sticker price, they score well, on average, on these criteria: good location, good student quality, a campus culture that welcomes true diversity of ideas (not just politically correct ones), and a name that opens career doors. The larger institutions, which I've starred, do suffer from being research-first/students-second institutions, but their low price and desirability on other factors justifies their inclusion.

  • Rice: A Big-Oil endowment has created a better-than-Ivy college at half the price.
  • UCLA: The honors program is a patch of Ivy at a State U price.
  • Mary Washington College: Like a small private college at a public price--in a Jeffersonian setting an hour from D.C.
  • McGill: A great city (Montreal), strong students, and the Canadian 69-cent dollar makes McGill a deal.
  • University of Toronto: Easier to get into than McGill.
  • Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. California weather, excellent students in its strong majors (e.g., architecture, engineering), $1,000 annual tuition. Safe, quaint town.
  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Good students, ideal location, great basketball tradition, bargain price.
  • University of Virginia: Top students in the ultimate Jeffersonian, colonnaded setting.
  • Santa Monica College: A nearly free two-year college that feeds many students to UCLA and Berkeley. Near the beach, near L.A.

2. Choose a college based on geography. Most students end up happier attending a college that's within laundry distance of home.

3. Consider the weather factor. Weather affects you every day of the year, so choosing a college in a warm-winter state will likely matter.

4. Consider the urban/rural question. Most students are happier at urban or suburban rather than rural colleges: they're closer to varied recreational options and to internships. On the other hand, if your child grew up in an urban or suburban environment and is curious about a more bucolic existence, it might be worth trying a rural college although a frequent complaint at middle-of-nowhere colleges is, "There's nothing to do here but drink."

My daughter practiced what I preach. Although she was admitted to Williams College, one of the nation's most prestigious, she turned it down to go to an easier-to-get into public institution which cost 70% less. There, as a top student, she was taken under wing by professors, got appointed to university-wide governance committees, and got touted for terrific post-college opportunities--she spent a year in the White House writing Hilary Clinton's daily briefings. If she had attended Williams, she would likely have been lost among its many top students. And we would have been nearly $100,000 poorer. This way, there was money left for graduate school.


Adelman, C. Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment, Washington DC: U.S. Dept. of Education, 1999.

Astin, A. What Matters in College? San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1997.

Boyer, E. Personal communication.

James, E., N. Alsalam, and J. Conaty, "College Quality and Future Earnings: Where should you send your child to college?" American Economic Review, Vol. 79, No. 2., 1989.

Pascarella, E, M. Edison, A. Nora, L. Hagedorn, and P. Terenzini. Cognitive Effects of Community Colleges and Four-Year Colleges. Community College Journal, Jan. 1996, pp. 36-39.

Pope, L. Colleges That Change Lives. Penguin, 1996.

© 2010, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He is the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in (NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on . 400+ of his published writings are available free on that website and is a co-editor of Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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