Harvard Paradox

Asymmetrical Information comments on Greg Mankiw by observing:

Harvard scores lowest in student satisfaction *and* enjoys the highest yield (%
of students admitted who attend) of any leading American university. How can the
same institution be so desirable and so disliked at the same time?

The data presented for is for the undergraduate school and my experience is with the graduate school of business, but I think some of my experience can still help answer this question.

At the time I attended, I was sure that the Harvard Business School (HBS) was the best place for me to attend.  I still think that is true.  First, it had (and has) a great reputation with both people hiring for jobs and the general public.  The Harvard diploma has power, power that hasn't lessened even 20 years later.  Second, it had a style that worked well for me personally.  I sat in on classes at other business schools, but HBS classes had an interactive, and often combative, style that I loved and thrived in.  Yes there was work, but the workload never was worse than my undergraduate school.  I would not change my decision.

That being said, while I have showered my undergraduate school with cash, Harvard has not gotten one dime from me.  Because as an institution, it sucked.  It had an incredible arrogance to it, often stating publicly that its customer was NOT the students, but was the businesses who hired its graduates and society at large.  And this was the attitude at the business school, which I was often told was the most student-friendly part of Harvard.  My college roommate Brink Lindsey apparently had a similar experience at Harvard Law, as he was part of a group that founded N.O.P.E., which stood for Not One Penny Ever (to Harvard).

At every turn, one ran into petty, stupid stuff that did nothing to contribute to the educational experience but were frustrating as hell.  The faculty was often arrogant and the administrative and housing staff uncaring. 

At the risk of sounding petty, I will share two examples.  These are small things, but are representative of hundreds of similar experiences over two years. 

  • At winter break the first year, we were all given a "gift" of a coffee table book about Harvard.  Then, next spring, we all found a $100 charge on our spring term bill for this "gift"
  • My Harvard dorm room had a broken heater in my second year.  It got so cold that ice formed on the inside of the windows.  After weeks of trying, we finally got a maintenance guy to come out.  He set a thermometer down in the center of the room and stared at it for ten minutes.  Then he picked it up and started to leave.  "Why are you leaving?" I asked.  He replied "Because its 53 degrees in here.  State law does not require us to fix the heating until it falls below 50."  I finally had to go to Walmart and buy several space heaters.  Several weeks later I was ticketed by the campus police for having a fire hazard -- too many space heaters.

I do not think it an exaggeration to say that had Harvard scoured every post office in the country for employees, it could not manage to provide worse customer service day-to-day.

And I think this is the answer to the paradox.  If you can tolerate the faculty arrogance, you can get a great education, but Universities are more than just a school.  For most students, Harvard is also their landlord, their only restaurant choice, their local police force, etc. etc.  And for all these other functions, they are terrible.


  1. jw:

    I had a long, long laugh at your observations about HBS. You forgot some other annoying aspects of that POS program:

    1. The long lines to pick up the week's case studies.
    2. The requirement of having to sit in the same damn seat everyday the first year.
    3. Being nickled and dimed at EVERY turn.
    4. Having to wear a tux at every social event.
    5. Having to pay out the nose to share our Harvard Housing with cockroaches the size of SUVs.
    6. The steep monthly fees to store an auto an hour's walk away.

    When people ask about my HBS experience, my response is always - wonderful classmates, mixed in with a two year experience I'd go out of my way to forgot. It was a waste of time and money.

    Another lifelong member of N.O.P.E.

  2. dearieme:

    Is there an anti-Harvard, a Uni disproportionately loved by its graduates?
    (For Britain, I'd guess St Andrews - of which I am not a graduate.)

  3. cate:

    I happened upon this post because my daughter, Harvard 2010, left it up on her screen. I cannot resist leaving some small opinion here on a subject that is close to my heart. I wonder how many graduates like me, from the Harvard Design School, would be members of N.O.P.E. if they knew of it? Though I feel the design education I received at the the GSD, as it was called in my time, was thoroughly engaging and gave me a superior design foundation, the education came at great cost. With very few exceptions, the GSD was a place full of excited, talented, idealistic, and extraordinarily diligent students and misanthropic, self-centered instructors. It is an ill-conceived idea that internationally recognized architects can teach, and enjoy teaching. Alas,Harvard hires them for their fame and raw talent and they, in turn, come to Harvard for its prestige, creating a mutal admiration society. Eight famous architects lined up in front of a student's work and postured, strutted and argued with and for each other,at a students' expense. Work was piled on with neither coordination nor empathy, resulting in an absurd round -the -clock workaholism that became the macho badge of being a GSD student. Under extreme duress,students divorced, became ill, depressed or in my case, developed lifelong insomnia.

    My daughter's pre-school required more teaching credentials and basic people skills than the GSD requires. When helping her in the college process, I worked hard to covey to her the value of an environment that doesn't just make you feel you are lucky to be there, but makes you feel they are lucky to have you. But she bought the argument for the "The Best." Of course--she was only seventeen. I can only hope that she's strong enough that Harvard won't make her feel that she needs to leave her exquisite sensitivity and infectious joie de vivre behind and become jaded, self-serving, arrogant and cut throat in order to be "successful" in the world. If it does, she will just be another one of us deriving some peculiar form of satisfaction blogging about Harvard's brand of misery.