Harvard: The Cost of Excellence

Lofty Status Has Its Trade-offs

By John Yemma and Daniel Golden, Globe Staff, 06/03/98

Last of four parts

J. Terence Patterson, who will be a junior at Harvard next fall, could have gone to many other top-ranked universities - for free.

He graduated in the top 5 percent of his high school class and was such a good football player that the University of Virginia, among others, offered him a full athletic scholarship.

Instead, the 20-year-old Memphis native chose Harvard, joining the most elite student body in the country. But Harvard does not come cheap. Tuition, room and board, and other standard fees is $31,132 and rising faster than the inflation rate. Patterson and his parents have taken out substantial student loans.

For his money, academic experts say, Patterson is getting a leg up on his career by allying himself with the Harvard name and hooking into a global network of alumni in business, government, and academia who might open the door to a better job and higher salary than if he had gone to another college.

''Coming here was something that I knew would always help me in my career,'' he explains.

What he's not necessarily getting is the best undergraduate education in the country.

After competing fiercely for high grades, top SAT scores, and outside achievements that win them admission, Harvard's undergraduates often are so competitive and success-oriented that they forfeit the slow-paced intellectual maturation that should be occurring during their college years, say academic specialists. Students, faculty, and administrators acknowledge that competitive pressures for undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard are exceptionally high.

''They're coming to us already electrically overcharged,'' says Harvard's president, Neil Rudenstine. ''Our kids are the highest of all higher tiers, so a lot of the pressure they put on themselves is internal. You know, they set standards for themselves that make it hard for them to meet.''

Adam Hickey, a 21-year-old government major from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., puts it more bluntly: ''Harvard can be a pool of competitive piranhas, but that's how the real world is.''

Is college supposed to be like the real world? Many academics don't think so. Education is increasingly about collaborative learning, close teacher-pupil contact, and hands-on experience, whether in a lab or beyond the campus. Harvard is an excellent research university, a first-class name, a well-endowed treasure in American higher education, but it is not, experts say, the place to go for an undergraduate education that emphasizes intimate scholarly contact, risk-taking, and intuitive thinking.

''There must be 25-30 other schools that provide the same quality of education as Harvard. It is true that Harvard is an excellent university, but Harvard's brand name is what students are going for,'' says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of

"When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today's College Student.''

Sol Gittleman, provost of Tufts University, questions the fixation that students and parents have with famed universities such as Harvard and Stanford, institutions with powerful graduate programs and superstar faculty doing cutting-edge research but not necessarily focusing on teaching. A report this spring by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching charged that research universities like Harvard give undergraduates ''little or no attention.''

''Our research universities are the envy of the world,'' says Gittleman. ''But it is throwing sand in your eyes if you think the educational experience of undergraduates at a Harvard is better than a Middlebury or a Georgetown.''

There are other trade-offs to a coveted Harvard degree. Be prepared, for instance, to have virtually no choice in housing (though the housing is extremely comfortable by college standards), to be placed in relatively large classes taught by teaching assistants instead of tenured faculty and, especially, to be competitive with fellow students from day one.

''When you come here as a first-year student, everyone is trying to outdo each other,'' says Daniel Suleiman, a 21-year-old social studies major. ''People take themselves so seriously because they are at Harvard. They think that what they are doing here bears a large consequence for the rest of their lives, so there is a feeling of self-importance. And the last thing Harvard does is try to squash that feeling.''

Beating the bushes for hot prospects.

But still they come. More than 200 of the top high school juniors in the Baltimore-Maryland region were out in force on a soggy night last month in the grand ballroom of the Hyatt Hotel in Bethesda, Md. The computers of the New York-based College Board had coaxed their names off of PSAT tests, the warmup for the crucial SAT exam, and forwarded them to the admissions departments of Harvard and other universities. Personal invitations were sent, encouraging phone calls made.

These students, after all, are the hottest prospects for the class of 2003, the top percentile on the PSAT. In many cases they have already been looked over by one or more of the 6,000 Harvard alummni who are part of a worldwide network prospecting for the world's best students.

There were 16,819 applicants for 1,650 freshmen slots this fall. By May 1, 80 percent of the students that Harvard had accepted for the fall term said they would attend. That is the highest ''yield rate'' among American colleges, even though Harvard is among the most expensive universities in the nation and has come under new competitive pressure from Ivy League schools with more attractive financial-aid packages.

Ken Annis, a trial lawyer in Potomac, Md., who volunteers his time as cochair of the Harvard alumni committee for Maryland, typically spends 50 hours between January and March and up to 80 hours between November and December examining the dossiers of Harvard prospects. ''The kick is talking with bright, enthusiastic, energetic kids,'' he says, although he acknowledges that because only a handful of the brightest students interviewed will be accepted, ''it can be a shock for kids who have never heard `no' to be told `no' by Harvard.''

This spring, more than 15,000 of the best students in the nation were told ''no'' by Harvard, including 2,146 valedictorians. Among them could be a future president or Nobel Prize winner. ''No one wants to be turning down 15,000 people,'' says Harvard's dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons. ''But if you want to build that great class you have to do that.''

If the benefit to Harvard is that it builds a great class, the drawback is that its rejection of so many top students often irks high school principals, counselors, and parents. Fitzsimmons gets hate mail and threatening phone calls every year after the rejection letters go out.

But tonight's mission is to attract, not reject. And 16-year-old Aaron Niedermayer, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, is listening. Harvard is one of five schools he would consider attending; Duke, Northwestern, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton are the others. A visit to Harvard last summer kindled his interest.

''People have these stereotypes of Harvard as a place where everybody is arrogant and a genius, but I didn't get that impression when I went there,'' says Niedermayer as he leans on a table in the back of the ballroom.

Fighting Harvard's reputation for arrogance and elitism is one of Fitzsimmons's main jobs. On this night, he is making a pitch for his alma mater and employer alongside counterparts from Georgetown, Penn, Duke, and MIT. A taut, scrubbed-looking marathoner in his mid-50s, Fitzsimmons is wearing a green day-pack on his back, much as a student would.

He tells the crowd that when he was attending Catholic school in Weymouth in the early '60s the communists, and rich snobs - which sounded interesting to me.'' Even then, he says, that was not accurate. Today's Harvard is ''totally different,'' he assures parents and students.

Fitzsimmons spends several weeks each semester on the road, meeting with students, parents, guidance counselors, and Harvard alumni. Harvard takes the building of each year's freshman class very seriously, looking not just for academic achievement but for other traits - including musical talent, community service, athletics - that show students have a passionate interest.

Despite Harvard's image as a rarefied realm for the intelligentsia, it has, in recent years, recruited a remarkable collection of athletes for its 41 NCAA teams - the highest number of any university in the nation. It lured a world-class female high-jumper from Hungary and has a strong women's basketball team that upset top-seeded Stanford in the NCAA tournament before being eliminated. Two members of the gold-medal US women's Olympic hockey team will be returning in the fall. The privately funded football recruiting budget has increased dramatically in the four years that Tim Murphy has been coach, enabling him to search nationwide for athletes such as Patterson, the Memphis native - academically strong and athletically gifted. Harvard won the Ivy League championship last fall.

Harvard's athletes must reflect the makeup of the overall student body in terms of class rank and SAT scores. One-third of the members of the football team, for instance, finished first or second in their high school class. Only one-quarter of Harvard students have combined SAT scores below 1300, says Fitzsimmons, and athletes are no different from the average.

Harvard offers no financial reward for athletic or academic skills, only grants, loans, and on-campus jobs. Armed with full-tuition offers from other universities, Patterson tried to negotiate for more of a grant, but was turned down. He is the starting wide receiver on a football team that draws loyal, if meager, crowds. He will have to repay student loans after graduation, but he says it is worth it.

''My dream was big-time NCAA football,'' he says. ''I forewent that dream, but I think it is a good trade-off.''

Although they do not like to talk about it, Harvard officials give preference to two other groups - minorities and children of alumni. Almost 35 percent of each year's freshmen class is drawn from minority ranks, with blacks making up 8 to 9 percent, Latinos 8 to 9 percent, native Americans less than 1 percent, and Asian-Americans 17-20 percent. Around 10 percent of each year's class are so-called legacies. Officials say all legacies and minorities qualify academically.

After explaining the elaborate reviews that Harvard performs on the thousands of applications it receives each year, Fitzsimmons gets a big laugh when he tells the Bethesda audience: ''I know it sounds like we have a perfect admissions process, but you must remember that we admitted Theodore Kaczynski, who later became the Unabomber.''

Parents dominate the question-and-answer session, peppering the deans with questions about financial aid, admissions considerations, and research opportunities for undergraduates. As Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at Penn puts it: ''It's not just a degree they want, it's the best degree. They view college like a durable consumer good and are willing to invest for it and borrow for it.''

Harvard's tuition is increasing faster than the inflation rate, even though the school's $12.8 billion endowment generates enough income each year that it could drastically lower tuition if utilized. But to do that, Rudenstine and other administrators say, would be irresponsible to future generations of students. Those who can pay full fare are charged full fare. The middle class and poor get financial aid on a sliding scale.

All financial aid at Harvard is based on need, and almost 50 percent of students get direct grants averaging $14,500 a year, just under half the tuition bill. All grant recipients also receive loans, as do another 20 percent of the stuents. The average loan is $4,600. Because of Harvard's substantial grant-giving, it is considered one of the better values in higher education - although even after grants are taken into account, Harvard's overall price still makes it more expensive than Stanford, Yale, and a dozen other schools.

Fitzsimmons is aware that other schools are offering more attractive financial packages to the students they and Harvard are pursuing. So this year, students accepted at Harvard were invited to fax aid offers from other schools to Cambridge to see if Harvard could do better. This helped Harvard reach the 80 percent yield rate and bought the university time to decide if it will match the financial breaks offered by Yale, Stanford, and Princeton.

Niedermayer, the Bethesda prospect, is watching the slide shows, which color all the campuses in a golden light. It's the parents who ''go on and on about the money issue,'' he says, as his father - a Yale graduate with a Harvard law degree - listens with amusement. ''Kids don't care about it that much.''

Niedermayer has not yet made up has mind, but as the deans hold court in separate corners of the ballroom, he makes his way to Fitzsimmons. Harvard, he says, is sounding more and more interesting, which is what other students seem to be thinking as well, for as the evening winds down, the Harvard crowd is growing in size as the crowds around the deans of Penn, Duke, MIT, and Georgetown shrink.

''We could coast, but you'd begin to see it very quickly - like the next year,'' says Fitzsimmons, who keeps talking to students and parents late into the evening. ''If we are not out there with our information, I assure you others will be. There are too many other good options out there. The days are long gone when any institution could get by only on its name.''

Despite ranking, critics see unfulfilled potential.

Academically, Harvard again was No. 1 in this year's US News & World Report annual survey of best colleges. Its graduate schools - law, business, and medicine - also consistently place in first or second place in various rankings. Harvard's influential scholarship and the output of new ideas, techniques, and inventions by faculty and graduate students put it among the top research universities in the country.

Still, some critics charge that Harvard is indeed coasting.

''Harvard is the greatest university in the world,'' says former provost Jerry R. Green, now a professor at the Harvard Business School. ''Given its strength and the resources it has, it could be doing better. It could offer better education to graduate students and undergraduates. But it's very hard to aim at a high target like that when you're already in first place. Why make changes and do that?''

Loren Pope, an educational consultant and the author of ''Looking beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College that is Right for You,'' says the elements most students and their parents want - close faculty-student relationship, collaborative learning, a sense of academic community - cannot be found at a place like Harvard.

''Sure you get some of the brightest kids at Harvard, but academic intelligence is only one sliver of intelligence,'' he says. ''When kids come to collegeassured of success, they have no need to struggle for greater understanding.''

Jeremy Knowles, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, says that a major part of Harvard's capital campaign will be devoted to increasing the faculty-to-student ratio and boosting the advising and mentoring of students in order to ''reshape the nature of the undergraduate experience.'' Nevertheless, Harvard is known for its tradition of merit and scholarship, and that is unlikely to change. Fads and innovations in higher education are not viewed favorably. A case in point is ''service learning.''

At many colleges, volunteerism is now coupled with academics in a way that brings practical skills to community service projects - tutoring in schools, working at soup kitchens - and enables students to learn from the experience while receiving academic credit.

Every school at Harvard is deeply involved in community outreach. Most student-organized charity takes place through the Phillips Brooks House Association, which places undergraduates in programs ranging from aid to migrant farm workers to operating an emergency winter shelter at the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square. By the time they graduate, more than 70 percent of students have performed community service. But the motive is pure volunteerism, say Harvard officials, not academic credit. The university is not interested in service learning.

''Harvard is not a vocational school,'' says Judith Kidd, director of the Phillips Brooks House. ''It is the rare student who wants credit for service.''

But that's a shame, says Robert Diamond a professor at Syracuse University who specializes in higher education. ''How much more potent their experience would be if it were orchestrated so that they learn from it'' with give-and-take in the classroom, he says. ''If any group in the world needs to understand the underlying sociological problems they are encountering it is Harvard kids. They are the ones who will be in the greatest position to influence those problems.''

Diamond, who has conducted large-scale studies of the academic quality of leading research universities, also questions whether the best teaching and learning is taking place at Harvard. Because of the high quality of the students, he says, it is almost impossible to judge what sort of intellectual growth is happening. Academic work is no problem to the brightest of the bright.

''At Harvard I could be pretty damn bad as an instructor,'' Diamond says, ''and my students are still going to succeed.''

Ninety-eight percent of students who enter Harvard graduate; only the California Institute of Technology has a higher graduation rate. Many Harvard students acknowledge that classes, studying, writing, and learning are not problems for them. Consequently, students put large amounts of time into extracurriculars - community service, athletics, the Crimson, singing groups.

''Harvard has been very disappointing academically,'' says a junior English major who attended prep school in the South and was surprised by what he considers the university's parched intellectual climate. ''I expected knowledge to drip from the walls of this place, but it didn't. But the thing to remember about Harvard is that if you want something you have to go and get it.''

Like several other students, he did not want his name used for fear that professors will grade him more rigorously because of his critical comments. His view, however, is not shared by all Harvard undergraduates.

''This is a place for self-starters, people willing to take the initiative,'' says Lamelle Rawlins, a 21-year-old junior from Macomb, Ill., who was president of the student body last year. ''But I have found it very rigorous, though people coming from elite prep schools might feel differently. I am uncomfortable with people who characterize Harvard as easy.''

Whether it is academics or extracurriculars, Harvard students and administrators acknowledge that the undergraduate population is so single-minded in its pursuit of excellence that students often do not recognize when they are under strain. And when they do, many are reluctant to ask for help. It is another of the hidden costs associated with the world's most sought-after college degree.

During the 1997-'98 academic year, two undergraduates and two graduate students committed suicide - twice the national average on college campuses. Each was a separate tragedy (one of the undergraduates had withdrawn from Harvard at the time) and the high number in one year may have been a fluke. But Dr. David Rosenthal, director of Harvard health services, acknowledged that stress levels at the school are ''as high as everywhere else'' and that a common theme among students is that they ''fear letting people down.''

The father of one of the students, David Okrent, a junior, said his son felt that ''because of the great expense of this place, he didn't think he was performing at the level he should be.'' A 1995 murder-suicide at Harvard's Dunster house shook the school and prompted a book - ''Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder'' by former Harvard tutor Melanie Thernstrom - that was critical of the university's super-competitive environment and counselors' unfamiliarity with students' mental health.

Harvard administrators say almost all the suicide victims and students afflicted with depression had problems before they ever arrived in Cambridge. The school has 350 counselors, tutors, and advisers ready to assist students in trouble. The problem, they say, is that most students are not aware of the services - or are reluctant to seek them.

''Students feel a great deal of pressure here to succeed,'' acknowledges Archie C. Epps 3d, dean of students. ''We need to overcome the perception that we are only concerned about success.''

When students apply to Harvard they put their best foot forward, he adds, and usually do not mention problems they might have with stress or depression. They are the best of the best, the top of their class. Harvard is often their dream and their parents' dream.

Because of that, says Epps, ''they don't want us to see them sweat.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 06/03/98. � Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.