I had a very interesting conversation with an econ professor of mine today. He did his undergrad at Harvard, and had some really interesting insights into his experience there. He started out taking core upper div courses his first year, then he took electives, then grad courses, and then all of his GEs. This is undoubtedly a really good way to orient towards academia, which he clearly did. It assumes that you know what you want, but for those that don’t it’s clearly not feasible.
What followed next though, intrigued me. We briefly discussed the differences in the education system at UCSD and that at Harvard.
Harvard has capped admission with tremendous resources per student. This is really helpful to students who are going to take advantage of this. So many students so many places are relatively disengaged with their educations. That being said, he expressed doubt that all of those who had the really good numbers for admissions (and who disproportionately come from wealthy backgrounds) were actually interested in this. The ability to interact with faculty can be really helpful for those trying to find their way (like myself!), and for those interested in the material and wishing to find out more (I’d hope also like myself!). So many people don’t go to class, let alone engage in faculty in ways non directly related to grades. At Harvard there may be grade inflation, but assuming that people are legitimately interested in learning this is not necessarily a bad thing. It just depends on what effort thresholds are, and how hard people are actually working. Again, I’m no Harvard student, so I don’t know to what extent this is true.
You get to network with some pretty damn impressive people. You go to a large public school, and it’s dubtless that a fair number of those around you will be going places. But a lot of them will just get a degree and do somethign with it. I suppose there isn’t anything wrong with this but for those who are pushing as hard as they can to the top having the ability to both stimulate oneself intellectually with such individuals and then to be able to network with them to open up opportunities down the line is worth a tremendous amount. Then again, this may overrate the motivation and qualifications of students, but certainly on average the average Harvard student is more likely to be at the top of their field than an average state school student.
I think some of it may be just the size but there was an implied sense of belonging. It’s an exclusive club, and they like to keep it that way. Herein somewhat lies the problem to this sort of education for the masses.
Probably the most interesting point that came up though was the fact that we hope to provide education of 80% quality at <50% cost at UCSD. This is a pretty noble goal. But at the end of the day I think it’s mostly what one makes of it. It’s really hard at UCSD, even if one is a shining star to get 80% of the best possible education at Harvard. But the mean education probably doesn’t differ that much if we assume student motivation to be the same. Is it? I just don’t know. But for the same reason both David Cameron and Boris Johnson went from Eton -> Cambridge -> politics, Harvard will continue to churn out leaders in a way the large publics won’t.