If there is a school that I have no reason to visit it’s Harvard.

It’s not because I have already been there. It’s because Harvard’s brand image is probably stronger than the undergraduate education really is. Unless you’re a football fan who grew up rooting passionately for Notre Dame or Southern Cal, you might come to believe that Harvard is simply “better” than any other university.

True, Harvard is America’s oldest institution of higher education and it is the best-endowed by far. If you study business you are more likely to read a case from Harvard Business School. If you’re into politics or economics, you’re likely to see Harvard faculty called to comment about an election or a foreign policy decision, among other things. If you’re interested in medicine, Harvard vies with Johns Hopkins for the most mentioned medical school in the media.

But whether Harvard is truly the best could be a question for debate.

First, you need to ask and answer this question: What is Harvard as an undergraduate institution?

There is only one undergraduate school at Harvard, Harvard College. Harvard is essentially a large liberal arts school (around 6,700 undergraduates) that also offers four engineering programs (Biomedical, Electrical, Engineering Science, Mechanical). Harvard offers only 49 concentrations (their name for majors) though the college will allow students to design their own. In addition, Harvard has more than twice as many graduate and professional students as it does undergraduates. There are about 21,000 students at Harvard; almost two-thirds are going for advanced degrees.

What are the “bests” about Harvard as an undergraduate school?

It admits exceptionally smart kids.

Their average high school GPA is a 4.0, recalculated by the admissions office. Nearly 80 percent of the freshman class that arrived in 2013 scored over 700 (out of 800) on the Critical Reading section of the SAT; more than 80 percent did so on the Math. Among those who took the ACT, 90 percent had a composite score over 30 (out of 36).

It is an extremely flexible place when it comes to planning out a degree.

Even the engineering majors are placed under one college, and its possible for an engineer to double major. Harvard requires Freshman Seminars, as other schools do, but few required courses. Aside from Freshman Seminar and the senior thesis, Harvard requires only 24 credits spread across eight areas over the full four years. These eight areas are:

You have an opportunity to write a thesis as well as take advanced courses

You might have a more personal educational experience at a liberal arts college such as Amherst or Williams, But those schools have nowhere near the resources of Harvard. Nor do they grant graduate degrees.

If you can get in you’re quite likely to graduate.

Freshman retention rate fluctuate between 97 and 98 percent. Those who got in clearly want to stay. The most recent four-year graduation rate was 86 percent. Harvard also meets 100 percent of a student’s need, and has “no-loan” programs that few other colleges can afford.

The alumni base could be second to none in the world.

This is probably Harvard’s most unique asset. A degree opens access to thousands of smart and successful people. Not to mention that few will dare to question the intelligence of a Harvard graduate.

But aside from the alumni base and the no-loan programs, Harvard is probably not so special.

Other schools ask their seniors to write a thesis while also offering the opportunity to take advanced courses. So do most of the highly-desired liberal arts colleges.

There are similarly demanding schools that do just as well at retaining and graduating a freshman class.

Among the most selective private schools that are also research universities, Duke, Princeton, Yale, Vanderbilt, Dartmouth, Penn, Cornell, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Boston College, Washington University in Saint Louis and Tufts actually have slightly better four-year graduation rates than Harvard. Some of these schools also offer more academic options, especially Cornell and Penn. In fact, the University of Virginia, which accepts about a third of the students who apply, has a slightly better four-year graduation rate than Harvard.And, among Kiplinger’s  2016 “ranking” of liberal arts colleges–Harvard is organized more like a liberal arts school for undergraduates–16 had better four-year graduation rates than Harvard.

All of these schools likely attracted students who were also attracted to Harvard. But in terms of performance–the school’s success at guiding students to a degree–Harvard has nothing close to a monopoly on excellence among colleges and universities.

Lastly, Harvard is not the only place where you can make connections towards success. Yes, this is not the most important reason to choose any college. But it is a consideration with many families with college-bound high school students.

You can go to any of these other schools previously listed, and many more, and still land a similar job. Some, especially Cornell, Penn and Virginia, will offer more choices of academic programs. Five and a half years ago, the Wall Street Journal surveyed 500 corporate recruiters who hire entry-level talent. Harvard appeared nowhere in the top 25 schools. Among the Ivies, only Cornell (#14) was so ranked. The University of Virginia ranked 20th. The school that topped their lists? Penn State. The other private research universities they liked? Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Brigham Young and Notre Dame.

Go to LinkedIn University Rankings for undergraduate schools and you get another story.

  • Is Harvard #1 in terms of producing investment bankers? No, it’s 11th. Which school is first? Georgetown.
  • Is Harvard #1 in terms of producing finance professionals? No it’s 8th. Which school is first? Penn
  • Is Harvard #1 in terms of producing professionals in any other field studied by LinkedIn? No, though Harvard ranked third as a producer of marketers. If you check out these rankings you might be surprised by the names of institutions that rank ahead of Harvard.

If I was an outsider I might be led to believe that Harvard could put more resources behind the job search than any other school. After all, it has prestigious graduate schools in many fields; recruiters are already coming to Harvard to meet their students. But those schools have their own career services, separate from the undergraduates. Of course, the same is true for Cornell and Virginia, among other universities. But when people work so hard to get into Harvard, they would likely come to expect better from Harvard.



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