April 22, 2005

The advantage of going to Harvard:

A reader writes:

You are absolutely right when you say that going to Harvard doesn't make you smart (it certainly didn't in my case). However what going to Harvard does do (at least it did for me) is to instill a sense of confidence and self-assurance that proves to be of enormous advantage later in life, totally apart from how smart or not smart you inherently are (or how much smarter the person who didn't go there is than you are, but since he didn't go there he lacks that confidence and thus "blinks" when the chips are down).

From my limited and admittedly personal experience alone (but confirmed in unscientific and statistically unrealiable connversations with classmates) this Harvard-inspired "bravado" (for lack of a better word) is a widespread phenomenon. On more than one occasion, when I have been confronted with a tough situation about which I have "not a clue" I find myself playing the mind game of "Hey, I went to Harvard, I should be able to figure this out!" and just that seemingly small bit of self delusion carries the day, because the other side in that situation immediately perceives the sense of power and control that this mind game imparts, and he backs down.

You would think that somewhere along the line someone or something would have "called my bluff" and exposed this little (or maybe not so little) charade, but I'll be 65 in a matter of weeks and it hasn't happened yet! Who knows what tomorrow brings, but so far so good.

Another observation about Harvard, the further you are from Cambridge, the more impressive the credential is perceived to be. In Boston, there are Harvard grads driving cabs and pumping gas, but west of the Hudson, across the pond or points east of Suez, a Harvard degree opens doors otherwise closed shut.

One of my most distinguished readers, who was an adornment of the Harvard faculty for many years, writes:

You are right about IQ tests. But see the study by Alan Krueger that shows that elite schools, such as Harvard, do not in fact add to what students learn compared to other, less prestigious schools.

Dan Akst reported in Money:

The economist Alan B. Krueger teaches at Princeton University, but in his view, it’s probably not worth the money it takes to send your kid there.

Not in terms of future earnings, anyway. Krueger ignited a minor furor when he and Stacy B. Dale, a researcher at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, concluded in 1998 that elite colleges do not pay off in higher earnings. They only appear to do so, the researchers contended. Krueger and Dale claimed that, in most cases, the higher earnings piled up by graduates of elite schools were attributable to elite individuals, not their college education. In other words, if you’re smart enough to get into Princeton, you’re smart enough to make a lot of money wherever you go to school...

But, other economists who have looked at the question, disagree. Akst's article has a lot of interesting observations on both sides, and I, personally, remain agnostic on the issue.

I suspect the value of the friends and contacts you make in college differs greatly depending on career. Now that I'm in the opinion journalism business, for example, it's clear that the only sensible career path in this little industry is to go to Harvard, or, failing that, another Ivy League school, and then move to either New York City or D.C. and socialize as much as possible with people who look like they could help you out some day (and cut everybody else dead): i.e., don't do what I've done (go to school in Houston and LA and get real world work experience in Chicago). But this is hardly a representative business.

One general suggestion I have is that, all else being equal, it's a good idea to get your schooling and make your career in the same metropolitan area. For a lot of people, the younger you are, the easier it is to make friends. It's hard to keep up with old friends if you are a thousand miles away, and it's not as easy to make new ones as you get older.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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