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Posted at 11:46 AM ET, 10/ 9/2009

What's So Great About Harvard?

By Valerie Strauss

Harvard University is known for providing its undergraduates with an unexpectedly high number of graduate assistants as teachers rather than professors because, apparently, the profs are too busy with more important things than teaching.

Now those poor kids can’t get a hot breakfast, a near tragedy that has just become the subject of numerous media accounts. Why is this, at a school where tuition is $33,696 for undergraduates this year and the total package (including room, board and student services fee) is $48,868?

Because of budget cuts. They were instituted after money managers at America's--and perhaps the Milky Way's--wealthiest university made lousy investments with money in the endowment and it plunged about 27 percent (far more than most other schools).

The endowment is still worth more than $26 billion--yes, that’s BILLION--but, school officials say, these funds are legally tied up and can’t be spent for things such as hot cereal. That's why there were layoffs of several hundred people this year, too.

The Answer Sheet is not privy to the details of the university’s budget but is reasonably sure that there was some other way to deal with the loss than taking away hot oatmeal and complimentary cookies at faculty meetings. (All is not lost, however, as faculty can still get free tea and coffee.)

The Answer Sheet is not a Harvard graduate, but here's what one said:

“It’s a sign of misplaced priorities and excessive deference to celebrity faculty that [history professor] Niall Ferguson can get paid what he gets paid [reportedly a few hundred thousand dollars], while interacting with undergraduates once in a blue moon, but the university feels the need to cut back on essentials of college life. I don’t necessarily blame that on [Harvard President] Drew Faust, but the administration is consistently cutting where it’s easy, not where it’s right.”

We all know that Harvard has assembled a stunning group of fine minds, does cutting edge research and offers some magnificent programs.

But is it time to stop talking about Harvard as if it stands alone as the platinum standard for higher education?

And as high school seniors go through the application process for college, it would be wise for them to remember that there are hundreds and hundreds of wonderful schools--not only where hot breakfasts are served and full professors teach freshmen, but that can change lives.

My colleague Jay Mathews wrote a book called “Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That Is Best for You.” Read it. And you can learn about some wonderful schools that you may have never heard at the Web site of “Colleges That Changes Lives.”

Do you think Harvard’s reputation is deserved?

(By the way, hot breakfasts seem to be a recurring thing at Harvard. Back in the late 1970s, hot breakfasts were taken away from some eating halls and students voted on whether to bring them back to all of them. The vote, believe it or not, was evenly split.

Maybe hot breakfasts aren’t all they are cracked up to be.)

By Valerie Strauss  | October 9, 2009; 11:46 AM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  Harvard University  
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I don't know much about Harvard, except that my aunt went there for her undergraduate work. I don't know much about it because when I was starting to look at colleges she told me she wouldn't recommend it. She didn't really enjoy her time there and thought I could find some place better. I ended up attending a teeny tiny school called Maryville College and have never regretted that. I'm sure most of you have never heard of Maryville, but for me it was life changing and I adore it.

Posted by: rrap1 | October 9, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

"But is it time to stop talking about Harvard as if it stands alone as the platinum standard for higher education?"

It has been for about 30 years. . . .

Posted by: laura33 | October 9, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

rrap1 ....I am thrilled to hear you enjoyed your time at Maryville College in Tennessee! Thanks for spreading the word...

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | October 9, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

harvard is too liberal. I wouldn't want my child to go there. Educators should educate from the center and not indoctrinate their students with one political point of view.

Posted by: charlietuna6661 | October 10, 2009 10:26 PM | Report abuse

Would be interesting to ask Jay if he would trade his Harvard degree for any of those Schmarvards he writes about. Students go to Harvard for:
(1) the prestige and
(2) the prestige.
They then also get to hobnob with an incredibly bright, select group of students and announce for the rest of their lives that they went to Harvard.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 11, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

It is completely unfair to say that Niall Ferguson interacts "with undergraduates once in a blue moon." Ferguson currently teaches TWO undergraduate courses, one of which is a core curriculum class (i.e. large and full of people who are not majors in his field), in addition to his work at Harvard Business School and with graduate students in the history department.

It's also silly that the media (NYTimes, now the post) is making a big deal about this now. The budget cuts were all announced in MAY:

That said, as a Harvard student, I think it's ridiculous we don't have breakfast. The faculty live without cookies, for however much that saves.

Posted by: w08white | October 12, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

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