Now that you understand what research has to say about the contextual and often-limited benefits of attending a highly-selective school, you may have opened your mind to a few less competitive yet wonderful institutions. However, we’ve worked with enough cream of the crop high school superstars to know that for many, the lure of prestige is just too strong. Ultimately, you still want a “name” school.
We get it. The Harvard name is the Harvard name and that is an undeniable fact. When an alumni list includes 7 signers of the Declaration of Independence, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, John K. Kennedy, and 25 of the current Fortune 500 CEOs in the world, it would be just plain silly to assert that students would have more of life’s doors swung wide open for them by choosing to attend any other school (apologies to forgotten 19th President of the United States Rutherford B. Hayes and the actor who played Herman Munster for narrowly missing inclusion on this list).
That being said, there are other elite, name-brand colleges and universities that may provide a better undergraduate experience than Harvard. Let us begin by revealing the truth about an undergraduate education at Harvard.
What does a Harvard classroom look like?
A Gallup Poll survey of 50,000 students found that where you went to school was in no way predictive of happiness in your future life or career. There was, however, a strong correlation between close mentorship by one or more faculty members in college and future satisfaction. Graduates who felt emotionally supported by faculty and were encouraged to learn on a deep and experiential level by their professors found themselves far more engaged in their work years down the line than those who did not. The average college consumer’s method of discerning how much of this highly important personal connection and intimate interaction takes place is to look at a school’s student-faculty ratio. Yet, this figure can be highly misleading.
Harvard touts a remarkably low student-faculty ratio; some years it is the very best in the nation. Unfortunately, their stated 7:1 ratio does not necessarily mean classes are small and taught primarily by their eminent, full time faculty. The average class size at Harvard hovers around 40 students and a handful of introductory classes are filled by hundreds of students. According to The New York Times, many Harvard graduates lament making it through four years and not even getting to know a single professor well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation. While this factoid is a bit anecdotal for our research-based tastes, a significant amount of hard data is suggestive of its veracity.
While there exists no shortage of Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and leaders in government and business on the Harvard faculty, the undergraduate teaching duties for these individuals range from limited to non-existent. With over 1,200 instructional graduate assistants at their disposal, a surprisingly large number of Harvard’s undergraduate courses are taught by either graduate students or “undergraduate teaching fellows.” Yes, you heard correctly—some courses at one of the world’s most prestigious courses are taught by fellow undergrads. In the fall of 2013, Harvard hired 32 graduate students and 32 undergraduates to help teach statistics courses. That same year, a popular computer science course sections were led by 16 undergraduate teaching fellows overseen by one graduate assistant.
A 2005 survey conducted across 31 elite campuses found Harvard undergrads ranking 27th in overall student satisfaction. The main reasons given were the faculty’s emphasis on research over teaching, lack of faculty availability, quality of instruction, quality of advising, and student life factors such as sense of community and social life on campus. While the school has since put together committees geared toward addressing these issues, student ratings of professor engagement and availability continue to lag well behind many other premier academic institutions.
Elite schools with a superior commitment to teaching
Swarthmore College in suburban PA has a slightly higher student-faculty ratio than Harvard (8:1) but boasts an average class size of only 15 students and an average laboratory class of fewer than 10 students. Take a moment to visualize the difference between sitting in a class of 40 and a class of 15. The educational implications are obvious: higher engagement, more discussion, more face-time with your professors—heck, they might even take the time to learn your name.
Harvard and Swarthmore both have some of the toughest admissions standards in the country. The competition for a spot at either institution is a case of valedictorian on valedictorian crime and perfect SATs are by no means a guarantor of acceptance. Clearly, if you are sitting in a classroom at either school you’re surrounded by peers who are also incredibly bright and driven individuals, the intellectual 1%. The difference is that at Swarthmore, a liberal arts college without any graduate programs, the instructor in your class is guaranteed not to be a grad student and certainly won’t be a fellow undergraduate. Further, Swarthmore students, as a whole, rate their faculty as being ultra-accessible.
Over on the west coast, in Claremont, California sits Pomona College, a school that is remarkably similar to Swarthmore in terms of student body size, class size, professor accessibility, and a generally happy and satisfied student body. Student accounts of their professors almost universally laud them as “warm, helpful, and friendly people.” Only 15% of Pomona’s professors are not full-time instructors. The overwhelming majority of those teaching classes at Pomona are tenured or occupy tenure-track positions with the college. Opportunities for undergraduate research abound whether through grants, research assistantships, and summer opportunities. Undergrads present with professors and even co-author academic papers on a regular basis.
Perhaps the stark difference between the commitment to undergraduate teaching at Pomona and Harvard is best illustrated in the two school’s own words. In a recent job posting for an instructor in Physics and Astronomy, Pomona declared that “candidates must have a strong commitment to high-quality undergraduate teaching in a liberal arts environment, and those with significant teaching experience are especially encouraged to apply.” Compare this to a recent Harvard posting for an instructor in the Life Sciences, which emphasized skills around “supervising and training a staff of approximately 30 teaching fellows, as well as a team of undergraduates who run weekly help sessions.”
Swarthmore and Pomona are hardly the only ultra-elite schools known for their commitment to the classroom experience of their undergraduate students. Located a mere 15-minute drive from Swarthmore, Haverford and Bryn Mawr both offer comparably wonderful educational experiences. These three schools also work on the same academic calendar and allow their students to take courses or even major on each other’s campuses. Within a stone’s throw of Pomona stand the other four members of the Claremont Consortium and all have a similar arrangement. Scripps, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, and Pitzer are all prestigious schools with low student-teacher ratios and a high-level of student engagement and personal connection with faculty.
Outside of these two geographic hotbeds of liberal arts glory, there are many schools fitting this profile right in Harvard’s own region of New England. Amherst, Middlebury, Bates, Bowdoin, Williams, and Wesleyan all offer a chance for the best and brightest students to learn from faculty strongly invested in teaching and student success. Other phenomenal options are scattered between the coasts such as Carleton in Minnesota, Oberlin in Ohio, and Grinnell in Iowa.
Pomona, Haverford, Kenyon and co. may not inspire the same awe among the general public. However, you can rest assured that the people who need to know—graduate schools and employers—are familiar with the quality and prestige of these institutions. In other words, these colleges still very much qualify as the type of “name” schools that many students crave.
Not all Ivies are created equal
When seeking a school with a deep commitment to undergraduate instruction, you don’t necessarily have to look beyond the Ivy League. Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth, for example, have long been known for their balanced commitment to research and teaching.
Yale’s storied residential college system is emblematic of the school’s commitment to an intimate undergraduate experience. All Yalies are divided into one of twelve residential colleges prior to their freshman year and remain part of a cohort throughout their four years together. Each residential college is overseen by a Dean and a Master, distinguished faculty members who live on site and regularly eat meals with students, allowing these anointed shepherds to better advise and mentor members of their flock.
The senior thesis requirement at Princeton ensures that no student will ever exit Princeton without having had close contact with at least one faculty member. Working in a one-on-one capacity with a professor, students begin crafting an original piece of scholarship in their field during their junior year. Seniors typically take a reduced course load so they can focus on completing this culminating project, which usually hovers in the 80-100 page range. Many alums say that the chance to generate a legitimate academic work was part of what made the Princeton experience so special, unless of course you speak with those who ended up running for high office or were nominated for the Supreme Court, in which case the words they penned at age 21 were dug out of the stacks, publicized, and scrutinized to the nth degree (See Michelle Obama, Elena Kagan, & others).
Dartmouth College prides itself on providing undergraduate students with structured research opportunities. Their First-Year Research in Engineering program allows freshmen to work with research faculty up to ten hours a week for an entire year. The Women in Science Project matches female students with researchers in fields where women are underrepresented, such as computer science, mathematics, and physics. These samples only scratch the surface of the abundance of opportunities at Dartmouth—in total, 600 undergrads participate in student-faculty research each year.
Relax, Harvard folks…
Harvard University was founded in 1636 and has a historical and deep-rooted place in American life. The pride of being accepted to and graduating from such an institution is understandable; it’s one hell of an achievement. Obviously you will be surrounded by an unsurpassed (but not unparalleled) peer group as well.
If you are one of the 37,000 brilliant, talented, and hyper-motivated individuals who will be applying to Harvard next year, we want you to do so with your eyes fully open. Should you emerge as one of the 2,000 odds-defying souls who gain admission, do your homework to make sure that Harvard is truly the best fit for you. If you end up joining the 35,000 who ultimately get rejected, revel in the fact that you have now been granted a new beginning, released from the mesmeric allure of Harvard’s iconic status. As T.S. Eliot once said, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
Of course that’s easy for him to say—Eliot was a Harvard alumnus.