By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 7:29 PM
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 such as 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 anymore 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 becoming wealthy and important, not summa cum laudes. Zuckerberg and his peers live on the Web. They want to use the Internet to change 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 universities. In our culture, the four college years are for trying out new stuff. Undergrads know 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 undergrads don't, 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 movie, 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 doing much for him. He dropped out, like his fellow billionaire Bill Gates, and neither of them has re-enrolled. This year's crop of applicants will find that 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.
For more Jay, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.