Colleges that are probably better than Harvard

Now that you’ve delved into the research uncovering the contextual and somewhat limited advantages of attending a highly selective school, you might be considering exploring less competitive yet equally outstanding institutions. However, we understand that for many students, the allure of prestige remains irresistible. The Harvard name carries undeniable weight; with alumni including signers of the Declaration of Independence, presidents like Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and a significant portion of the current Fortune 500 CEOs, it’s hard to argue against its influence. Yet, it’s essential to recognize that other elite, name-brand colleges and universities can offer an undergraduate experience that rivals or even surpasses that of Harvard. Let’s delve into the reality of an undergraduate education at Harvard.

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Let’s take a closer look at the Harvard classroom experience.

A Gallup Poll survey of 50,000 students discovered that the prestige of your alma mater isn’t a reliable indicator of future happiness or career success. However, what does matter significantly is the level of mentorship provided by faculty during your college years. Graduates who received strong emotional support and were encouraged to engage deeply with their studies by their professors reported higher levels of satisfaction in their careers later on. But how do you measure this vital personal connection and intimate interaction? Many prospective students turn to the student-faculty ratio as a benchmark. Yet, this figure can be deceptive.

Harvard boasts an impressively low student-faculty ratio, often ranking among the best in the nation. However, this 7:1 ratio doesn’t necessarily translate to small classes taught primarily by esteemed full-time faculty members. In reality, the average class size at Harvard is around 40 students, with some introductory classes accommodating hundreds. According to The New York Times, many Harvard graduates graduate without forming significant relationships with their professors, making it challenging to secure recommendation letters. While this anecdotal evidence may raise eyebrows, substantial data supports its validity.

Despite Harvard’s star-studded faculty roster, many undergraduate courses are taught by graduate students or fellow undergraduates, rather than tenured professors. In fact, Harvard employs over 1,200 instructional graduate assistants.

A survey conducted in 2005 across 31 elite campuses revealed that Harvard undergraduates ranked 27th in overall satisfaction. Students cited faculty’s prioritization of research over teaching, limited faculty availability, instructional quality, advising quality, and aspects of student life like community sense and social experiences on campus as key concerns. Despite Harvard’s efforts to address these issues through various committees, student ratings of professor engagement and availability still trail behind many other top-tier academic institutions.

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Elite institutions with a profound dedication to teaching

Swarthmore College, nestled in suburban PA, may have a slightly higher student-faculty ratio than Harvard, but its average class size of 15 students and lab classes with fewer than 10 students offer a vastly different educational experience. Imagine the distinction between sitting in a lecture hall with 40 peers versus a more intimate setting where engagement, discussion, and personalized attention from professors are the norms.

Both Harvard and Swarthmore are renowned for their rigorous admissions standards, attracting top-tier students. However, at Swarthmore, a liberal arts college without graduate programs, you can be certain that your instructors are not graduate students or fellow undergraduates. Moreover, Swarthmore students consistently praise the accessibility of their faculty.

On the west coast, Pomona College in Claremont, California mirrors Swarthmore’s commitment to teaching excellence. With a similar student body size and class structure, Pomona students enjoy a close-knit community and highly accessible professors. The majority of Pomona’s faculty members are either tenured or on tenure track, fostering ample opportunities for undergraduate research and collaboration.

The stark difference in the commitment to undergraduate teaching between Pomona and Harvard is evident in their own words. A recent job posting at Pomona emphasized a strong commitment to high-quality undergraduate teaching, while a similar posting at Harvard focused on supervising teaching fellows and undergraduates running help sessions.

Swarthmore and Pomona are just two examples of elite institutions prioritizing the undergraduate classroom experience. Nearby Haverford and Bryn Mawr offer similarly enriching educational environments, while schools like Amherst, Middlebury, and Williams in New England, along with Carleton in Minnesota and Oberlin in Ohio, provide exceptional opportunities for student-faculty engagement and academic success.

While these institutions may not have the same public recognition as Harvard, they are highly regarded by graduate schools and employers alike. In essence, they offer the prestige and quality education that many students seek, making them worthy contenders in the realm of elite higher education.

Not all Ivies are cut from the same cloth

While searching for a university deeply committed to undergraduate education, you needn’t look beyond the Ivy League. Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth, for instance, have established themselves as institutions equally devoted to research and teaching.

Yale’s distinctive residential college system epitomizes the university’s dedication to fostering close-knit undergraduate experiences. Each student is assigned to one of twelve residential colleges before their freshman year and remains part of this community throughout their undergraduate journey. Overseen by a Dean and a Master, these colleges provide a nurturing environment where faculty members live among students, offering guidance and mentorship both inside and outside the classroom.

At Princeton, the senior thesis requirement ensures that every student engages closely with faculty members. Beginning in their junior year, students collaborate one-on-one with professors to develop an original scholarly work in their field. Seniors often dedicate their final year to completing this substantial project, which typically spans 80-100 pages. Many alumni attribute the opportunity to produce genuine academic research as a defining aspect of their Princeton experience, a sentiment shared by notable figures like Michelle Obama and Elena Kagan, whose undergraduate theses have garnered widespread attention.

Dartmouth College stands out for its emphasis on structured research opportunities for undergraduates. The First-Year Research in Engineering program enables freshmen to collaborate with research faculty for up to ten hours per week over an entire year. Additionally, the Women in Science Project pairs female students with researchers in fields where women are underrepresented, fostering a supportive environment in disciplines like computer science, mathematics, and physics. These initiatives represent just a fraction of the diverse research opportunities available at Dartmouth, where approximately 600 undergraduates engage in student-faculty research annually.

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Chill Out, Harvard Enthusiasts

Harvard University, established in 1636, holds a significant and storied place in American history. It’s no wonder that being accepted to and graduating from such a prestigious institution is a remarkable achievement, fostering a sense of pride and accomplishment. Undoubtedly, you’ll find yourself among an exceptional (though not unrivaled) peer group.

For the 37,000 bright, talented, and ambitious individuals considering applying to Harvard next year, we encourage you to approach the process with clear eyes. If you’re fortunate enough to be among the 2,000 who secure admission, take the time to ensure that Harvard aligns with your aspirations and goals. And for the 35,000 who don’t receive that coveted acceptance letter, remember that it’s not the end of the road—it’s a chance to explore new opportunities and chart a different path. As T.S. Eliot once remarked, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Of course, it’s easy for Eliot to speak with such wisdom—he was a Harvard alumnus, after all.