Thursday, April 22, 2010

If I'd been writing the letter

Harvard College recently sent admissions notices to 2,110 of the 30,489 applicants to its Class of 2014 -- an admissions rate of 6.9 percent. The linked article notes that applications have doubled since 1994, with half of that doubling coming since the university introduced a series of financial aid initiatives, aimed at students from middle- and lower-income families, in 2004.

If I'm not mistaken, an applicant to Harvard 30 or 35 years ago had roughly a 1-in-5 chance of getting in. Now the odds are roughly 1-in-15 (or 1-in-14). This year, as has no doubt been the case for a while, far more students than the total admitted had perfect SAT scores and ranked first in their high school classes.

Some of the 28,000-plus applicants who got the "we regret" letter from the Harvard admissions office at the beginning of this month are probably mature and self-confident enough to have shrugged it off; but others of these kids, maybe especially the ones with amazing records, were perhaps quite disappointed (and at least a few, eighteen-year-olds being what they are, were probably crushed). Now, I don't know what the Harvard "we regret" letter says, but I'm willing to bet a fair amount of money that it doesn't say what, IMHO, it should.

If I'd been writing that letter, I'd have said something like this:
"Dear Sally/Tom/Peter/Julia/Jason/Alberto/whoever:
We regret [etc.]. We know this is not the letter you wanted to receive from us. We had an enormous number of exceptional applicants and could only admit one in fourteen. We have to consider all kinds of things in making our decisions, and although we could have admitted, for example, a class comprised entirely of high-school valedictorians, that would not have resulted in the diversity that Harvard, like every other institution, aims to have in its student body. So while we considered each applicant very carefully, in the end you should take our decision not mainly as a reflection on you, but rather mainly as a reflection of the constraints under which we were operating.

"Since we work here, the undersigned obviously think that Harvard is a good university. But we also know that, as the country's oldest university, it is shrouded by a mystique which obscures the reality that Harvard is not better than many other institutions whose faculties, students, and programs are just as good and just as distinctive. In any case, the quality of your college education and experience will depend principally on you, not on the particular institution you attend. There are no automatic or guaranteed tickets to success (however one might define success), and you will come to realize sooner or later that the institutional name on your diploma is less important than what you did in the course of earning it. Even in a status-conscious society such as ours, reputation goes only so far, and in the end it cannot substitute for individual efforts (or, for that matter, cover up our own shortcomings). We hope that these observations will help you put our decision in proper perspective.

With all best wishes for your future [etc.]


T. Greer said...

Harvard is not about the education. It has nothing to do with the education. When you got to Harvard, you are paying for your social connections.

'Cause that is what the Ivies are. One way tickets into the ol' boys club of national politicians, businessmen, and media executives. You can't get that everywhere.

LFC said...

T. Greer,
I logged in just now with the intention of deleting this post, for various reasons. However, since you've taken the trouble to comment on it, I guess I'll leave it up.

Your comment expresses a view that is probably widely shared, and no doubt it contains a certain amount -- perhaps 'a grain plus,' so to speak -- of truth.

I would point out, though, that although some people do indeed make valuable social-business-political connections in college (and not only at the Ivies, btw, though they may well be especially fertile ground for this), other students, including some at these institutions, have relatively little interest in the 'connections' aspect.

Without going too much into my own experience, I can say confidently that my undergrad Ivy League degree did not give me access to an "ol' boys club of national politicians, businessmen, and media executives," or to a putative ruling class. Admittedly, I wasn't really interested in such access; but when I applied to law school (many years ago), it was abundantly clear that law schools didn't care where I had gone to college; they only cared about my grades and LSAT score -- which was fine inasmuch as I don't feel that the identity of my undergraduate institution should have mattered (in any case, it plainly didn't).

More generally, to characterize a set of universities just as one-way tickets into some elite circles is a half-truth at best
and does not capture the full complexity and range of these big, wealthy, multifaceted institutions. Believe it or not, some education does go on in these places, along, to be sure, with various other things. In my college class alone, I can name several people who went on to become distinguished scholars (perhaps needless to say, I am not one of them). And others pursued careers that involve social change or activism or are otherwise quite outside the "ol' boys club."

I would reiterate what was implicit in my post: it is possible to get a good education at thousands of places, if the person in question is determined to do so. It's also very possible to spend four years drinking and 'making connections,' regardless of where one goes.

LFC said...

Postscript: I endorse, for the record, the hackneyed but true statement that education does not take place only in the classroom and that one learns from informal interactions with peers. But those interactions are not the same as punching tickets into the "club".

T. Greer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
T. Greer said...


My original comment was a bit glib. Allow me to restate it with a bit more nuance. As this post admits, the education provided by Harvard University is not better 'than many other institutions whose faculties, students, and programs are just as good and just as distinctive.' I think we can both agree that a motivated student at the average (good) state university will learn much more than the average unmotivated student attending an Ivy.

If this is true, why go to Harvard? I understand, of course, some go because they think the educational content of an Ivy is superior, but I think most of these kids know better than this. (Most of them did when I was applying for undergraduate study - not that long ago, if you can believe it.)

So why do they go? Well, because they are born and bred AP kids - the type who are attracted to super competitive environments and entrance exams like moths to the fire - because they care about prestige of their school, and because they know that the odds of getting a good job after they leave are quite higher than your average state university.

At this point I will stop for a question - does this mischaracterize student motivations in choosing an Ivy?

Assuming I do not, I will proceed:

You are right, of course - not all students are interested in making "connections". My suggestion to such students - particularly for an undergraduate degree - is not to attend Harvard. Ivy schools are incredibly expensive ( mostly for stupid reasons) - too expensive for most middle class students to seriously contemplate. Unless these students plan on entering a career that will quickly pay these colleges expenses off, they would be better off going to one of 'many other institutions whose faculties, students, and programs are just as good and just as distinctive.'

On the other hand, if you desperately want to be a top dog at Goldman Sachs or NSA, the Ivies are not a bad place to start.

An Automatic ticket to the ruling class? An exaggeration on my part, but only a slight one. You have taken a cross-section of Harvard grads and said, "Look, not all of these guys are in the putative ruling class!" True, but I submit that you are viewing the issue from the wrong end. A more interesting exercise would be to take a cross-section of Fortune 400 CEOs, Bank Execs, U.S. Senators, congressional aides, Washington think tank fellows, and the second layer of officials at the White House (i.e. the policy makers, not the politicians and administrators), and examine them. I think you would find that a hugely disproportionate number of these graduated from the nation's top 12 universities or so.

LFC said...

I think we're dealing with at least three separate issues here -- two are empirical and one is prescriptive (for lack of a better word).

1.(empirical) Why do students apply to an Ivy or comparably 'elite' school?

2.(prescriptive) Should anyone apply to an Ivy, or should all students apply to less expensive, in some cases less prestigious (but academically good) institutions?

3.(empirical) What 'practical,' career-related advantages (if any) does attending an Ivy (or comparably prestigious school) give you?
I think we're basically (though perhaps not totally) in agreement on question #1. Obviously a lot of people apply to these places for prestige reasons and/or because they are drawn to competitive environments. My only caveat here is that some no doubt apply for other reasons: they want a place with lots and lots of resources, they want to study w/ a particular professor or in a particular program, their friends are applying, they have family connections to the place, the tennis team is recruiting them, etc etc. But in general I agree w you on the reasons or motivations of a lot of the applicants.

However, on question #2 -- which is basically: are there any good, legitimate, non-prestige, non-mercenary, non-career reasons to apply to an Ivy? -- we probably have some disagreement. Your answer is 'no'. My answer is 'maybe' or 'it depends'. If you are a driven, competitive person who wants to be in an environment with other driven people, that in itself may be a legitimate reason to go, inasmuch as you're going to be happier in that kind of environment. If for some (bizarre) reason you cannot be happy except in a place that is preoccupied with its venerable history and traditions, that also may be, in some cases, a legitimate reason. Or if you know that you want to be a scholar or academic in an out-of-the-way field, there may be legitimate reasons to go to a place where you can easily study Sanskrit or Ukrainian or African languages or the history of late-medieval Scandinavia or whatever (b/c the catalog is big and the course offerings are very extensive). Or perhaps you're someone who from the age of ten has known that you want to study in a particular program that is offered or you've "known" from the age of five that you want to sing in the Princeton glee club because your uncle did, or whatever (there probably are a few such people). On the other hand, if you don't have some such idiosyncratic (but nonetheless legitimate) reason and you're someone who wants to study a more standard field such as, say, American politics, I would see no especially compelling reason to do that at Harvard as opposed to a good state university or, for that matter, a university in D.C. (Not, to be sure, that I know enough about the American politics field to say this with complete confidence, but that would be my hunch.)

And now we come to question #3 -- what does going for an Ivy "do" for you, career-wise? Your answer is (in my words): "It may not be an automatic ticket into the ruling class, but it sure as hell helps." My answer is: "I really don't know b/c I haven't seen the empirical research on this." Everyone "knows" that going to an Ivy gives you a career advantage, but everyone could be wrong. I am less confident than you are that your proposed sample of Fortune 400 CEOs etc would turn up "a hugely disproportionate number who graduated from the nation's top 12 universities or so." But obviously we are not going to settle the question here and now in the confines of these comments.

LFC said...

Correction: in 2nd line of last paragraph, "going for" should read "going to"

LFC said...

OK, I see now from the Zenpundit comments thread that you are going to look up where the 100 U.S. Senators went to school and post the results at your blog.
I eagerly await the complete vindication of my intuitions and will be checking The Scholar's Stage tomorrow for the results. :)

"Cases in Plutarchy? The U.S. Senate by Graduating Institution" | T. Greer - The Scholar's Stage said...

[...]a frequent commentator here at the Stage and other related sites, has objected to this argument (in several different forums)[...]

LFC said...

Note: Readers (if any there be) who have been following this discussion may continue to follow it at The Scholar's Stage.