I won’t actually answer the above question, as I am offering neither a rating of these schools nor a measure of how others rate them (which would be necessary to calibrate the “overrated” claim). What I am doing is responding to an email from Mark Palko, who wrote:
I [Palko] am in broad agreement with this New Republic article by William Deresiewicz [entitled "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League: The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies"] and I’ll try to blog on it if I can get caught up with more topical threads. I was particularly interested in the part about there being a “non-aggression pact” outside of the sciences.
This fits in with something I’ve noticed. I know this sounds harsh, but when I run across someone who is at the top of their profession and yet seems woefully underwhelming, they often have Ivy League BAs in non-demanding majors (For example, Jeff Zucker, Harvard, History. John Tierney, Yale, American Studies). My working hypothesis is that, while everyone who graduates from an elite school has an advantage in terms of reputation and networks, the actual difficulty of completing certain degrees isn’t that high relative to non-elite schools. Thus a history degree from Harvard isn’t worth that much more than a history degree from a Cal State school.
And David Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in history . . .
In all seriousness, I don’t know if I agree with the claim in the headline of that article Palko links to.
I was very impressed by some of the Harvard undergrads I taught. Then again, they were statistics majors. In the old days, statistics might have been considered the soft option compared to math, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. If anything, math majors are sometimes the sleepwalkers who happened to be good at math in school and never thought of stepping off the track. Anyway, it’s hard for me to make any general statements considering that I don’t teach many undergrads at all at Columbia.
Yeah, I don’t want to put down Harvard grads, even the history majors. I’m sure that a disproportionate number of the brightest, most promising young historians are working on Harvard B.A. What’s more, I suspect most of them are developing valuable relationships with some of the most important names in their field.
What I’m wondering about is the popular notion that Ivy League schools are hard to get into and hard to get through. The first part is certainly true and the second appears to be true for STEM (which also has an additional self-selection bias). I’m not just not sure if it holds for all fields.
I don’t think there’s any question that selection bias, networking opportunities and halo effects play a large role here. What if they account for most of the benefit of attending an elite school for most students? This is worrisome from both sides: students are twisting themselves into knots to meet artificial and frankly somewhat odd selection criteria; and we’re giving the students who meet these odd criteria huge advantages in terms of wealth, career, and influence.
That can’t be good.