A reader writes:
There's a very good reason why franchising out Harvard, or even expanding it significantly, works against its success. A large part of the Harvard educational experience for students is the relatively high intellectual and academic quality of one’s fellow students. A major expansion of the institution risks diluting the quality of the student body and, therefore, the quality of the academic and social networking experience.
In response to Peter Thiel, Harvard has been franchised. They just go by different names:
Yale (the strict Calvinist’s Harvard years ago), Princeton (the Presbyterian Harvard) … every Ivy league institution is a variation on the Harvard theme. The University of Chicago was conceived as a Midwestern answer to Harvard, Stanford the West Coast answer to Yale (which was an answer to Harvard), Georgetown was the Jesuit version of Harvard (a corrective to Harvard’s Protestantism and, later, “secularism”), and a litany of highly competitive, prestigious liberal arts colleges all across the country are mock-ups of the Harvard undergraduate liberal arts experience – everything down to the aesthetically appealing quads. And not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of America's most influential, wealthy, and noteworthy citizens have degrees from one of these franchises.
Thiel’s right that college expenses are outrageous. He's right that the system is built on elitism. And he's right that plenty of people don't need such an elite education to be successful. But he seems to be missing an important point: The difference between Harvard and its highly selective (i.e., wealthy) franchises from the rest of the colleges rests not with their undergraduate educational model but with the motivations and accomplishments of their students. Plenty of perfectly bright kids don’t work very hard in high school. And even some that do, and do well, go to colleges that don’t challenge them. And to round out those kids, there are plenty who didn’t have the opportunities to cultivate their intelligence, coupled with some kids who just aren’t that bright.
His bizarre solution to this is to "prove" his point by giving $100,000 to the top kids at already elite institutions and show the world that they can succeed without finishing a degree. No shit.
Thiel's understanding of why Harvard is considered a "better" education is misguided. Perhaps the "status" of Harvard plays a disproportionately important role in employers' hiring practices, but he refers to "scarcity" like it's some sort of unnatural, engineered quality.
I've discussed this with a friend who actually went to Harvard, and we decided the biggest difference in difficulty between his school and mine was the difficulty in getting in. We studied virtually the same things. Granted, my alma mater is considered a "public ivy" (University of Washington). But the real difference, and the difference that results from a very real form of scarcity, is that when I studied International Relations it was taught by a bright individual no one knows about. He was taught by Stephen Walt, a man on the cutting edge of IR theory. My professor was certainly capable, but his professor is a regularly published academic at the forefront of his field. You can't do 100 Harvards, and it's not because the "established elite" is trying to keep you down through manufactured "scarcity".
By the way, it's pretty disgusting that someone would say that value of education is based on others failing. Maybe the monetized value of education. But the ability to perform and to be a well-rounded individual ought to be worth something, as well.