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New film shows folly of Ivy envy

This time of year, with high school seniors slogging through one college application after another, and parents jittery about their children’s futures, I often write columns explaining why it doesn’t matter where they go to school.

The invariable reaction from many readers, and some of my friends, is that I went to Harvard, so what do I know about their problem?

It is true that I am a Harvard grad . I wrote a book titled “Harvard Schmarvard” that argues that the Ivy League, and other top-ranked colleges, add no discernible value to the lives of their graduates. They are good at attracting students with character strengths, such as persistence and humor, that lead to success. But applicants with such qualities who decide instead to attend places like Boise State do as well in life as those who attend colleges older than the country.

There is research on this by economist Alan B. Krueger (Cornell grad) and Stacy Berg Dale (Michigan). The problem is that it requires higher-level math to understand completely, and is boring. I am happy to report I don’t need it any more to fend off the teasing I get each autumn. There is now a Hollywood movie, a box office smash, making my point in dramatic terms that cannot be ignored.

The film is “The Social Network.” It was written by Aaron Sorkin. He is a Syracuse grad, but he grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., so he knows many Ivy Leaguers. The first part of the film, in which undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg creates Facebook, is supposed to take place at Harvard. The buildings did not look familiar to me. Wikipedia says the scenes were actually shot at Wheelock College, Johns Hopkins, Cal State-Dominguez Hills and two prep schools, Andover and Milton.

The ambiance may be wrong, but they got the lifestyle right.

Have you seen the movie? Did you notice that none of the student characters ever study, or even talk about their courses? The conversations are mostly about sex and parties and clubs and becoming wealthy and important people, not summa cum laudes. Zuckerberg and his friends, and enemies, live on the Web. They want to turn the Internet into something that changes the world. That Gov 10 paper due Friday is ignored.

That is an exaggeration of what goes on in selective schools, but not by much. The atmosphere is similar to what you find at most colleges and universities. In our culture, the four college years are for trying out new stuff. Undergraduates know that they are supposed to be studying, but most of the ones I have known, and interviewed, devote little time to absorbing their school’s academic riches.

That was the way it was for me and my friends. We spent most of our days and nights at the student newspaper. I have a D in Chinese to show for it.

Zac Bissonnette, a senior at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, recently published a book, “Debt-Free U,” that argues convincingly that nearly every state university can provide as deep an academic and extracurricular experience as Harvard if students seek out the best professors and activities and apply their energies there. Most undergraduates don’t do that, whether at a famous school or not.

What about those great Ivy alumni contacts? The truth is every college has influential alums, if you bother to call them. The Zuckerberg character in “The Social Contract,” who may or may not be like the real Facebook founder, becomes a billionaire not because he went to Harvard, but because he was a computer genius, a talent he developed before he got to college.

Zuckerberg seems to have figured out that Harvard wasn’t going to do much for him. He dropped out, like his fellow billionaire Bill Gates, and neither of them has reenrolled. This year’s crop of applicants will discover if they embrace all their college has to offer, no matter where it ranks on the U.S. News list, they will get far more out of it than they ever expected.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | October 10, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Mark Zuckerberg, Aaron Sorkin,, Zac Bissonnette, it doesn't matter where you go to college, little studying in college  
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Next: What Jerry Bracey would have said about Locke High


That movie does not portray the typical Harvard student or their lifestyle any more than Waiting for Superman portrays real teachers in public schools.

Both biased movies portrayed and both reinforced ugly stereotypes and ugly messages about others that they wanted to portray. And this author should not be agreeing with the message it sends. Mathews Schmathews!

Posted by: rsolnet | October 10, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

Maybe if the student picks a joke concentration then Harvard is a 4 year party, but when I was there from '03-'06 as spouse to a grad student, I observed that the overwhelming majority of students worked quite diligently. That was also true of my undergrad experience at Stanford. I typically put in at least 45 hours/week studying and doing course work. My then-boyfriend now-DH was an engineering major and probably put in at least 60 hrs/week.

Would Zuckerberg have found it so easy to get "angel" investors and venture capital firms to fund his company if his resume read No Name State U. rather than Harvard? Probably not.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | October 10, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse


You're out of touch or intentionally misleading. Parents and students know that, given financial aid, a private university can cost the same or less than a public one. Many public universities are no longer the great deals they once were and because of lax admissions policies, some have students who have barely mastered basic high school graduation requirements and are hardly ready for college.

And about that Harvard degree...well, let's see, Harvard almost-grad Mark Zuckerberg is pledging $100 million to Newark schools after being solicited by another Harvard grad, Cory Booker, who is pushing the same reform agenda as a couple of other Harvard grads, Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan, who have been inspired by the efforts of another Harvard almost-grad, Bill Gates, all of whom have received support from Ivy-league educated presidents, George Bush and Barak Obama, another Harvard grad. Those with children (with the exception of Bush)'t, or didn't send them to public schools.

I would say that if you want to have a voice in the so-called "reform" movement, an Ivy-league degree, especially a Harvard degree, pays off pretty handsomely. (Those of us on the ground with children in the public schools have seen what "reform" has done. In my Queens neighborhood,reform has taken top performing schools and reduced them in ten years time to worse than some of the worst in the city. The children haven't changed. The policies and most importantly the curriculum--dumbed down-- have.)

Posted by: Jennifer88 | October 11, 2010 2:02 AM | Report abuse

Jay, I wanted to remind you what is happening out here in the real world. Your "busy two weeks" has stretched into a month, with still no disclosure of Kaplan K12 by you, or publication of the guest blog you invited me to write.

Yes, Facebook made a billionaire, but there are bigger dynasties to be founded if only online huxters can capture the local, state, and national funding stream for public education with their untested virtual products. Please comment on this story, which your employers have run with no disclosure of their own financial stake.

“How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders”

This manifesto puts the for-profit agenda right on the table: all Rhee's mealy-mouthed declamations about the importance of teaching are window dressing. The purpose of teachers in the classroom is to administer the for-profit fraud of "online learning", both in district classrooms and in the virtual charters secretly embedded in public districts.

No, don't pass over the link thinking you already know about "Kaplan Higher Education" or "Kaplan Test Preparation".

Open the link. Read what the Washington Post Corporation is secretly selling to your children, for its own profit, at public expense, through its wholly-owned subsidiary, "Kaplan K12".

Superintendents are openly appointed by mealy-mouthed billionaire practitioners of "leveraged philanthropy", but the Washington Post has not disclosed to its readers its investment in the destruction of the public education "status quo".

Rhee and Klein are closing schools out from under whole communities, so displaced children can be scavenged by hidden partners like Kaplan K12 Virtual Charters:

"Imagine capturing the per-diem pupil payments for every child, even if she never even walks through the door".

Posted by: mport84 | October 11, 2010 4:32 AM | Report abuse


I can believe that Ivies might not offer the payoff people seem to think they do.

But where do you get your quaint and unfounded ideas that the Ivy League students don't work? You cite a Hollywood film and your own experience at Harvard (ahem) quite a few years ago.

I hear this notion oft repeated, but no one seems terribly troubled to provide sound supporting evidence--save for citing a couple of fairly shaky studies that rely on self-reporting and lump a whole lot of "selective" universities together.

I, too, have experience with these schools. I attended one 20 years ago and taught at two in the past decade. The libraries at my alma mater will filled until they closed at 2 am. Students who did not work hard did not do well. I had a number of friends who were on exchanges from European and Asian universities who were taken aback at how hard they were required to work at the American university.

When I taught freshmen, sophomores and seniors at another Ivy, we assigned substantial writing every week and required revision. The freshmen were frequently overwhelmed--hard hit, because they had never been required to work so hard in high school. (A sad comment in itself, I know....)

Your frequent assertions that Ivy League students are a bunch of slackers just doesn't reflect my experience or that of anyone I know.

Posted by: DrMom6 | October 11, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

"There is now a Hollywood movie, a box office smash, making my point in dramatic terms that cannot be ignored."

Seriously, Jay? There are very few Mark Zuckerbergs in the world, and yes, he likely would've become a billionaire no matter where he attended school(though it should be noted, he did develop the idea for Facebook through give-and-take with other bright students -- one of the great benefits of attending a top school). Mark Zukerberg doesn't prove anyone's point in this debate.

For those of us who are not computer programming savants, there are undeniable benefits to attending college where nearly everyone around you is a future leader, and where you have access to a robust network of influential alumni. Yes, the amibitious and self-starting can succeed from any college, but it's easier and there's a lot more room for error when you're coming from Harvard or, in my case, Princeton. I obtained my first job after college through an alumnus and thus was able to skip several years of slogging through the lower levels of my chosen profession, newspaper journalism. Since then, I've switched professions and continue to believe that my educational pedigree eases my way. I have no doubt that it did the same for you, and for you to assert otherwise is disingenuous.

I agree that it's not the end of the world or a prescription for failure if a child doesn't go to a top college, and I think this is your essential point. But you are way overarguing it and losing credibility in the process.

Posted by: mb1975 | October 11, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Almost every week, Jay, you write a column that proves my point that you are not a very serious journalist. You are more like the guy who hangs around the water cooler and repeats the things he read about online, or saw on t.v., or in a movie, as if they were gospel truth. Great "reporting." Maybe you should try and master the more boring mathematics next time.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | October 11, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

On behalf of Boise State alumni everywhere, thank you...I think.

Posted by: themadhatr | October 11, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

I attended two Ivy League schools, and my children graduated from a mixture of public, private, and Ivy. Of course, education is what you make it (and, unfortunately, in higher education the onus is often on the student). I met some of the most impressive minds while in college and grad school (and do not underestimate the value of those after hours bull sessions), but certainly not all. As a teacher, I encourage my students to attend college for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with pedigree. For more on my experiences, visit my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | October 11, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Good comments. As many noted, there are plenty of diligent people in the Ivies and other universities, but those that use the universities they are in to the fullest are still a minority, based on the interviews I have done. I acknowledge there is not much data proving or disproving this, but I do recall some rather extensive data on grade inflation at Harvard, which tended to suggest that As were given out more readily than one would expect.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 11, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

and for mport84, email me at I still don't have a clean copy.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 11, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, Harvard is the home of mega-grade inflation.

And help me out here, Jay. I hear-tell that male folks in your general cohort in colleges had reason to work a bit in order to get grades that would prove to your draft boards that you were serious about your deferments.

Posted by: axolotl | October 11, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

And help me out here, Jay. I hear-tell that male folks in your general cohort in colleges had reason to work a bit in order to get grades that would prove to your draft boards that you were serious about your deferments.

Posted by: axolotl
As usual you get it wrong.

The grade inflation started during the Vietnam war with students approaching teachers and giving them a hard lot story that if they did not get a B they would be drafted.

Also college enrollment was greater.

Besides in the Ivy League back then there was the gentleman's C which was the lowest grade a student would ever get.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 11, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

This is one of the few areas where I agree with Jay Mathews.

The cachet that a graduate of the Ivy League schools once had is reduced.

Great schools for the super rich or those with scholarships that make it affordable. Also great for graduate students if the costs are picked up by the schools.

A higher education is better if a student is not working instead of an education where a student has to work to make the tuition and costs.

The goal should be for the best education at the lowest price that one can afford. If possible school loans should be avoided.

The Ivy schools no longer provide the best undergraduate education since a great deal of the instruction is from graduate students.

I am surprised that schools are not telling prospective students the percentage of undergraduate classes that are taught by faculty members in comparison to graduate students.

At one point students were assured of the top of the field for instruction in undergraduate schools but this has greatly changed.

There have been significant changes in higher education in the last fifty years and many of the factors that were responsible for the reputations of these schools may be totally gone now.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 11, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

general cohort in colleges
The word cohort is certainly getting popular today as it is used to simply replace the word group.

Ah for the days when I first came across the word in Paradise Lost.

Perhaps this is in response to group in group theory.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 11, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

bsall. -- as usual, yo verbosity vastly exceeds accuracy. That spot for DC Police Commissioner that u said u wanted is still open for you, btw.

Posted by: axolotl | October 11, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse


I'll agree that grade inflation is a big problem at the Ivies--and many other schools to boot. That has to change, and at least a few presidents are beginning to take it on.

But the sad fact that there's grade inflation does not necessarily mean that the beneficiaries of that grade inflation don't work hard. I did often grit my teeth at the grades I was giving my students at an Ivy League school. They were for the most part very accomplished and hard-working, but that in itself shouldn't lead to an "A" at a top university.

As for your interviews. I'm reminded of the bravado I noticed in so many of my friends in college. No one claimed to work very hard, lest they be seen as "tools," but in fact they all burned the midnight oil. Yet they preferred the pose that success came easily.

That, in itself, is a cultural problem. But I'm still not convinced that Ivy League schools are filled with layabouts. I'll need to see much better evidence before I'm convinced

Posted by: DrMom6 | October 11, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

For axolotl---You know the sixties well. Your comment is significant and may explain why three months after I graduated, and got married, I was doing pushups in a driving rain during basic training at Ft. Lewis, WA.

For bsallamack---I have having yr comment framed and mounted on my living room wall.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 11, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I have no idea if your hypothesis is right or wrong, but I do know this. Of the 10 most successful people I know in DC - all of whom are millionaires (on paper at least)- two are college dropouts, seven went to state schools, and only one was from the Ivy League. Frankly, I'm beginning to believe the Ivies accept only weird kids who, for example, open an orphanage at 16, have their first patent at 14, or are involved in so many activities they have no life. I hope my children will chose a good balance until they get to college. If they decide to go Ivy league, I'm sure they will be challenged and will appreciate the opportunity to be there. If not, I know they'll still be successful, happy, well-adjusted adults - and maybe more so!

Posted by: abcxyz2 | October 11, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

nice post, abcxyz2.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 11, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Good piece. You really should forward a copy of it to Anne Applebaum. Her "yay, Ivies" column today is an embarrassment.

Posted by: bugmenot3 | October 12, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Yes...I guess Harvard types go to parties and never study, and that is why MIT, Cal & Stanford are ranked 1-2-3 in engineering. A handful of Facesoft and Microbook rich guys will pop out but in the meantime the serious folk will keep building Si Valley and the future.

Posted by: rumple2 | October 12, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

"Maybe if the student picks a joke concentration then Harvard is a 4 year party"

Well, Jay appears to have been either a journo or education major. Mystery solved. At least there were chicks in those classes.

I share Jay's doubt the undergrad education you get at an Ivy is superior what you'd get at directional state university, but the social connections you make have extremely high value.

There's also no question private sector employers have become significantly less impressed with an IL degree than they once were, mainly based on poor performance from grads of those schools relative to expectations. I'm not sure if that's because of grade inflation or because, as abcxyz2 sort of says, their admissions process has morphed into one that admits people who are really, really good at going to school, but not much else.

Posted by: Allj | October 12, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I was a working class girl who was thrilled to go to the nearest college. Needless to say it wasn't Harvard.

In sociology class I studied about "the establishment" but I'm not certain I really understood what it was although I DID understand that I was not a part of it.

When my son went to Harvard I finally understood. What these kids get and what parents purchase is association with a network of people who have "connections." This might not matter if you want to be a librarian or social worker, but it counts a lot if you want to be a corporate attorney, a politician or an entrepreneur. Would my son have won his bid for political office if it hadn't been for donations from rich Harvard classmates, some of whom were the children of senators and congressmen? I don't know but I'd guess in the affirmative.

Did my son get a better education than he could have gotten at State U? Probably not, but he definitely made the social contacts that enabled him to realize his dream of becoming an elected official.

The above might not be "right" but it's part of our culture and many other cultures as well. It's the way of the world.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 12, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

I did not know you were the governor's mom, Linda. You should be proud, eh?

Posted by: axolotl | October 12, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

He's not the governor, but of course I am very proud indeed.

(Yes, I know you're being facetious, but heck, I AM proud!)

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 12, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

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