Friday, March 06, 2009

Hacking Ivy and Going Local

A little educational arson for these tough economic times.

The Ivy League and other high falutin' schools are sending out acceptances now.

For those that get accepted by one of these very competitive schools, congratulations. But before you go through the door marked with a Varsity letter and high status t-shirt, I'd urge you to take a second to review where you are.

Malcolm Gladwell and Paul Graham have both weighed in on the importance, or lack thereof, of where you go to college. So, what should you do if you get accepted at a top school? I think it provides the opportunity for an elegant hack, as well as an opportunity to "go local" with your education.

No doubt, you have won the lottery. The chances of getting into these schools are slim. The differences between those accepted and those rejected are miniscule and not apparent to many. You have probably been told that you got in because of your talents and experience, but recognize that luck also played a huge role.

In any event, you are a WINNER. Because, with your acceptance, you have already received some of the benefit of an Ivy league education (I've heard some cynics say it's the "only" benefit). Part of what these institutions do is pre-qualify people for positions in industry, academia and government. And they do at least part of that with their admissions.

See, the application process is the university's loss leader- they spend a lot of time qualifying the "best and the brightest" to fill the class of 2014. Just think, for a mere $65 and a few hours on your application, you have been judged to be Harvard material (or Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and just to be inclusive, Stanford and MIT). This is an incredible return on your investment. And you should definitely take advantage of your hard work and good fortune.

But, smarty pants, the next step is not a no-brainer (did you follow that double negative?). In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000, Ben Gose found that "students who spurned the elites and attended the less-selective colleges actually earned more money. " That's right, once you get in, the smartest thing to do is go somewhere else. Lower investment and higher return. See Harvard doesn't necessarily make you smarter. And in this economy, one might argue that is even more true. If you decide to go, you are signing up for a cost of over $50,000 a year.

When should you attend an Ivy? If you have a good reason to go. Their brand is not that reason. The aspiration of your parents is not that reason. The fact that your significant other is going to school in the same area is not that reason. The fact that you will be in school with a bunch of smart, hard working people is not that reason (although it is a good one). The fact that people will think you are smart if you go there isn't that reason. But if you want to work with Amy Smith at MIT, that is a dang good reason. Or if you want to study economics at U Chicago, well, I can't stop you (but I might argue that if you are of that persuasion a better test would be attending a school with a more liberal bent, and vice versa).

Sure, if you go, and work hard at these schools, you will get an excellent education. But it may be possible for some of you to get a better education for less money. And, just to remind you, saving money now is just like earning it in the future.

For instance, if you were financially disciplined you could attend one of many fine state schools (or slightly less selective schools that offer you excellent funding) and buy yourself a much better education. For instance, an Ivy is likely to cost $35-40,000 more than your home state institution (tuition at Colorado State is $5870). Now, I know you don't have that difference in your pocket, but you still might be able to set aside several thousand dollars each year, and that buys you freedom and flexibilty.

During the summer, you could travel. You could write companies or non-profits that you really want to work for and say "I got into Harvard but went to State. With the money I saved, I can come work for you for free" (a variant of this is, "pay me what you think I earned at the end of the internship"). If you wanted to work with Amy Smith, you could apply for her summer design summit and not worry about missing out on summer job income. If you wanted to do climate change research in Antartica... well, you get my drift. Your job is to be remarkably different, and just heading off to an Ivy won't make that so. I think it may actually make you less remarkable.

When you graduate, if you decide to go to grad school, you may be a much more competitive position. If you do it right at State, you will have good grades, strong references, and you will provide diversity for the grad school as it puts together its class. Plus, you won't be in debt when you start.

If you decide not to go to grad school, and join the labor force, think about where you want to end up. Going to Boston or going to Seattle may have different answers in terms of plugging into the network, knowing who the best employers are, etc. The way to win this game is not to have Harvard on your resume, it is to get the job before it gets posted. Because you met your new boss at a talk she gave to your class, or at a 10k run, and then got an internship with her company. And, to my earlier point about cost, coming out of school with major debt results in poor career choices. Picking prestige over passion. Golden handcuffs. Soul death. And, even if you have your eyes set on the corner office, this may not be your ticket.

Best of all, if you decide to start a company after you graduate, you will have that option. Not many people with high student loan balances can even consider it. Often for a decade they are out of the start up game, and then it may be too late. I think most prospective entrepreneurs would be much better off at a State school, and then attending events around the country. It should take less time to get your school work done, you will invest less money in a degree you are unlikely to use much anyway, you can build your network, you can get in a few days skiing or surfing, and you get access to smart people and credibility. Think of college as your business incubator.

As for the claimed network effect (or should that be affect?), I don't think that the education market has adjusted its prices for the effect of Web 2.0. MIT is now open source. Most well known thinkers have many podcasts, articles and books on-line. And it's global. If I want to watch a lecture that happened at LSE last week, I can do it whenever I want. For the motivated student, this vastly reduces the potential cost of getting exposed to leading thinkers. As for the Ivy network, sure it is still valuable. But those walls are getting breached just as surely as the one in Berlin, and Facebook and Ning are the hammers. And you should be able to create a network of smart friends at any school (the converse is also true, by the way). Just start a facebook group called "I got into Harvard but went to State" and start hanging out. I guess it is just a matter of what value you place on saving $120,000 over four years.

Don't get me wrong. You should be proud of getting into one of these selective schools. Now show how smart you are by playing your cards to get the best education for YOU. That may mean its time to leave the high status college casino with your current winnings. And then, to paraphrase Mark Twain, using your resources to make sure your schooling decisions "don't interfere with your education." Going local, and looking for your best afforable option, could be a great way to hack your way through college.

NOTE: This advice is aimed at undergraduates. For graduate school, some of the same arguments apply, but the network hiring effects for the grad schools, particulary in law, business and medicine are significant. Weakening, but significant. So if you don't get into the GSSE program, go to Harvard Business School, or Stanford Law, since it probably won't hold you back too much in the long run.

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