Choosing Harvard: Thoughts About a “Prestigious” University

Longfellow Hall.HGSEAs Juniors and their families begin sizing up prospective colleges for application and weighing the value of a college’s reputation, I thought I’d share I came to be a Harvard graduate, along with thoughts about a recent New York Times article, Measuring College Prestige vs. Cost of Enrollment.  Quotes from the New York Times article will be followed by my experience seeking a “prestigious” degree.

While some students will be able to go to college only if they receive financial aid and others have the resources to go wherever they want, most fall into a middle group that has to answer this question: Do they try to pay for a college that gave them little financial aid, even if it requires borrowing money or using up their savings, because it is perceived to be better, or do they opt for a less prestigious college that offered a merit scholarship and would require little, if any borrowing? It’s not an easy decision.

I applied to four graduate schools without regard for financial aid or cost: UC Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Michigan, Harvard and University of Hawaii, Manoa.  Harvard was the long shot–the I’ll-see-if-I-can-get-in-then-consider-enrolling-more-seriously.

“It’s not just the sticker price and the net costs,” said Sarah Turner, professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia. She added, “How likely is it that you will get into medical school or law school or have some other opportunities” if you choose the more prestigious college?

That’s the rational argument. In these decisions, though, emotion often wins out, and it can lead to the slippery slope of excessive borrowing.

Living with Harvard attached to my name, I admit, can be an ego booster.   I understand the sentiment that “…there are parents who are willing to sacrifice beyond all rational reasoning,”  as Lynn O’Shaughnessy commented in the article. The “look-at-me” nature of being accepted at a “prestigious” university can be intoxicating.  The prospect of being part of an elite group, kinda like being part of the popular kids at school, can make any normally rational human being, become clouded.  The promise of a stable economic future can be the icing on the cake.

While it is hard not to give our children what they want, here are some ideas on how to think about this financial dilemma without going broke — or at least know why you will be broke.

The competition to get into top colleges is fierce in many cities and towns in America, but nowhere is it more so that at the country’s elite institutions. And many parents feel compelled to reward all that hard work.

I understand the desire to be rewarded and recognized for my efforts.  After being admitted to Harvard, the lure of being perceived as accomplished, as a result of studying alongside accomplished people and a graduate of the same institution as generations of known to be accomplished people (like U.S. Presidents), was both intimidating and flattering. “Surely, there was a mistake somewhere in the admissions office,” I thought,  yet I was eager to pit my intellect against the giant brains I perceived to be waiting in Cambridge.

Prestige has always been part of the equation, but he said he had expected parents to start looking for value in colleges after the 2008 financial collapse. Instead, parents have come to see the elite universities as the only way to give their children a chance at success. They feel jobs are hard to come by and companies are only going to look to hire at the elite universities. [Sentiments of James Conroy, chairman of post-high-school counseling at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Ill., an affluent suburb in Chicago]

The “economic advantage” of a “prestigious” degree can be subjective.  Yes, there’s an argument to be made for the networking that happens because people share a similar experience over 4 years together, and that these networks over time (like generations, which Harvard has as a 377 year old institution) which extend into the highest reaches of power (think: U.S. Presidency and other international diplomats, as well as Wall Street bankers, CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies) can create opportunities for financially stable careers.  However, in my experience, graduates can still need some roll-up-your-sleeves work to demonstrate their skills and potential. I sent out plenty of resumes before starting my company, as well as have spoken with thousands of prospective clients as a consultant, and have not been hired.  Yet, I’ve been equally hired by clients simply hearing I went to Harvard.  The best I can summarize, is that the Harvard degree gives me enough credibility to open the conversation with potential clients, as it did when I was seeking employment.

In most cases, though, the decision is what Professor Turner called, “a choice under uncertainty”: few high school seniors really know what they want to do and, by extension, what they will earn.

The financial returns of a college degree over a lifetime for all Seniors (and graduate students) is unknown.  There’s an accepted risk in choosing ANY college, let alone the “prestigious” college.   How much risk is part of the question families need to ask.  I was accepted at UCLA and the University of Michigan.  Two “prestigious” flagship public universities, selective in their own right, yet didn’t compare with Harvard in my mind when I thought through the possibilities.  And, I did.  I remember making detailed Pros and Cons lists of each graduate program where I was admitted.  I contacted friends and family who were either current students or alumni of each college, called other previously unknown and therefore seemingly objective students from the graduate schools.   Yet, after all was considered, I moved to Cambridge.

If they [a family] decide to pay more than they can afford for the coming school year, they need to remember that they’re looking at a four-year expense and that given increasing tuition, the total cost will be more than four times the cost of freshman year.

Cost didn’t enter the decision making at any time, even when considering student loans to pay for graduate work.  Although naive, I didn’t weigh the consequences of student loans, plus I had no loans from my undergraduate degree to add pressure to more seriously consider the costs and benefits of graduate student loans, as I discussed in an earlier post.  Families today may not have the same privilege as I did.  As regular Creative Marbles Consultancy blog readers know, annually rising college tuition and long term consequences,  like moving back home with your parents–which 22.6 million or almost a third of all 18-34 year olds did in 2012 according to the U.S. Census Bureau–of increasing student debt are creating conditions for families to ask more questions about the “return on investment” of a “prestigious” degree.  At the time when I entered graduate school, none of these concerns were pressing for me–for better or for worse.

The economic value of just the Harvard degree is difficult to isolate.  Given that I earned the Harvard degree at 26, and it has been included in essentially my entire professional career, I’d be hard pressed to find evidence of the amount of money I earned as a result of only the Harvard degree alone.  How do I subtract that I’m also a University of California graduate, have spent my entire career specializing in a single field–education, networked with people all over the country, and found myself time and again in fortunate situations?  Additionally, the skills I learned as competitive athlete and the advantages of growing up middle class can factor into the success I’ve experienced somewhere.  There is no objective way of knowing the value of only the Harvard experience given the complex nature of a lifetime.  Plus, beyond the financial success, hearing Nelson Mandela speak in person, debating educational policy with academics who advise U.S. Presidents and Governors, meeting hundreds of urban, Boston students as a student teacher and living in a different part of the country cannot exactly be quantified.

In the end, deciding to or not to attend a “prestigious” college will depend on the individual’s values and aims.  The financial considerations can exist regardless of the prestige of the college, as many families are limited somehow in their ability to pay for college.  What cannot be definitively known at the time of enrollment is the future “returns” of the investment in a “prestigious” college’s education, or any college for that matter.  That requires a confidence in life working out, no matter what happens.  I’m still determining the value of Harvard in my experience.   So far, so good…

Photo Source: Harvard Gazette, January 3, 2013

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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