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Editor: Paul L. Caron
Pepperdine University School of Law

Friday, May 30, 2014

NY Times: Harvard Is the Stanford of the East

New York Times, To Young Minds of Today, Harvard Is the Stanford of the East: Riding Technology Wave, Stanford Rises to Top of Some Measures:

SHIn academia, where brand reputation is everything, one university holds an especially enviable place these days when it comes to attracting students and money. To find it from this center of learning, turn west and go about 2,700 miles.

Riding a wave of interest in technology, Stanford University has become America’s “it” school, by measures that Harvard once dominated. Stanford has had the nation’s lowest undergraduate acceptance rate for two years in a row; in five of the last six years, it has topped the Princeton Review survey asking high school seniors to name their “dream college”; and year in and year out, it raises more money from donors than any other university.

No one calls Duke “the Stanford of the South,” or the University of Michigan “the public Stanford,” at least not yet. But, for now at least, there is reason to doubt the long-held wisdom that the consensus gold standard in American higher education is Harvard, founded 378 years ago, which held its commencement on Thursday.

“There’s no question that right now, Stanford is seen as the place to be,” said Robert Franek, who oversees the Princeton Review’s college guidebooks and student surveys. Of course, that is more a measure of popularity than of quality, he said, and whether it will last is anyone’s guess.

Professors, administrators and students here insist that on the whole, they are not afraid that Harvard will be knocked off its perch, in substance or reputation. But some concede, now that you mention it, that in particularly contemporary measures, like excellence in computer science, engineering and technology, Harvard could find much to emulate in that place out in California. ...

Stanford’s reputation is far more than buzz, of course — it is a recognized leader in many disciplines besides the applied sciences, and its sparkling facilities and entrepreneurial culture are widely envied. But in particular, it basks in its image as the hub of Silicon Valley, alma mater to a string of technology moguls and incubator of giants like Google, Yahoo and Cisco. ...

Undergraduates here are aware of the contrasts with Stanford (and others), but they vary widely in how seriously they take the topic.

“I’m a bio major, and within that field at least, it’s not spoken about at all, whether or not one school is superior to the other,” said Michelle Choi, who just finished her second year. “I don’t think Harvard students at all feel threatened.”

But for students more attuned to technology, “there’s a sense that they have a direct pipeline to Silicon Valley and money that doesn’t exist here,” said Nicholas P. Fandos, the managing editor of The Harvard Crimson, who just finished his junior year. ...

Last year, 26 percent of Stanford’s undergraduate degrees were awarded in computer science or engineering, about three times as many as at Harvard. At Stanford, about 90 percent of undergraduates take at least one computer programming class, compared with about half at Harvard. ...

Harvard professors in a variety of fields said that a little fear of a competitor was healthy, and that the university was less complacent about its leadership than it once was. “I think there’s a halo effect that doesn’t do Harvard any good, because Harvard has, at times, had pockets of mediocrity that it could get away with,” said Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology and a noted author on that field and linguistics.

Harvard also has an image, reinforced in college guides and student surveys, as a less-than-happy place for undergraduates, while people swoon over the quality of life at most of its peers. Its students have a reputation for being intensely competitive, working hard and getting by with little hand-holding, at least by today’s standards.

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Sigh. How is it that in what must be now the third decade of absolute college prestige mania, we [the public] still blindly accept acceptance rates as some byword for quality, prestige, or even its own merits? This is one of the most gameable, manipulated numbers in all of collegedom, and self-reported to boot. Heck, some colleges send thousands of application fee waivers to underqualified kids they intend to reject, just to artificially lower their acceptance rate. But everyone still goes crazy when another school drops into the single-digit acceptance rates, or when one school's acceptance rate drops below its archrival's. It's all smoke and mirrors.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | May 30, 2014 9:59:07 AM