Asymmetrical Information comments on Greg Mankiw by observing:
Harvard scores lowest in student satisfaction *and* enjoys the highest yield (%
of students admitted who attend) of any leading American university. How can the
same institution be so desirable and so disliked at the same time?
The data presented for is for the undergraduate school and my experience is with the graduate school of business, but I think some of my experience can still help answer this question.
At the time I attended, I was sure that the Harvard Business School (HBS) was the best place for me to attend. I still think that is true. First, it had (and has) a great reputation with both people hiring for jobs and the general public. The Harvard diploma has power, power that hasn't lessened even 20 years later. Second, it had a style that worked well for me personally. I sat in on classes at other business schools, but HBS classes had an interactive, and often combative, style that I loved and thrived in. Yes there was work, but the workload never was worse than my undergraduate school. I would not change my decision.
That being said, while I have showered my undergraduate school with cash, Harvard has not gotten one dime from me. Because as an institution, it sucked. It had an incredible arrogance to it, often stating publicly that its customer was NOT the students, but was the businesses who hired its graduates and society at large. And this was the attitude at the business school, which I was often told was the most student-friendly part of Harvard. My college roommate Brink Lindsey apparently had a similar experience at Harvard Law, as he was part of a group that founded N.O.P.E., which stood for Not One Penny Ever (to Harvard).
At every turn, one ran into petty, stupid stuff that did nothing to contribute to the educational experience but were frustrating as hell. The faculty was often arrogant and the administrative and housing staff uncaring.
At the risk of sounding petty, I will share two examples. These are small things, but are representative of hundreds of similar experiences over two years.
- At winter break the first year, we were all given a "gift" of a coffee table book about Harvard. Then, next spring, we all found a $100 charge on our spring term bill for this "gift"
- My Harvard dorm room had a broken heater in my second year. It got so cold that ice formed on the inside of the windows. After weeks of trying, we finally got a maintenance guy to come out. He set a thermometer down in the center of the room and stared at it for ten minutes. Then he picked it up and started to leave. "Why are you leaving?" I asked. He replied "Because its 53 degrees in here. State law does not require us to fix the heating until it falls below 50." I finally had to go to Walmart and buy several space heaters. Several weeks later I was ticketed by the campus police for having a fire hazard -- too many space heaters.
I do not think it an exaggeration to say that had Harvard scoured every post office in the country for employees, it could not manage to provide worse customer service day-to-day.
And I think this is the answer to the paradox. If you can tolerate the faculty arrogance, you can get a great education, but Universities are more than just a school. For most students, Harvard is also their landlord, their only restaurant choice, their local police force, etc. etc. And for all these other functions, they are terrible.