How to Get All the Value of a Harvard Education at 1/8th the Price

09/27/2011 05:19 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

Because of the rising cost of college tuition, many people have been looking for new and creative ways to 'hack' education and reduce the price of a high-quality college degree. For most students, starting at a two-year associate degree program and then transferring to a four-year college is the tried and true method for saving a few much-needed dollars.

But what about the Ivy League kids?

If you're looking for a way to save on your Harvard education, starting at your local community college is just not going to cut it. And with Harvard tuition reaching close to $40,000 a year, before room and board, even the best of the best are looking for ways to tighten their belts. (Even expensive Italian leather can get a little loose at times.)

Well, don't worry Harvard hopefuls, you can be hackers too. Thanks to my new plan, you can reap all the benefits of a Harvard education at only 1/8th of the price.

But before I go any further, I should probably mention that this plan won't work if you want to be a banker, consultant, doctor, or lawyer. (Good luck with that though.) Also, you can use this method with almost any Ivy League college, but because Harvard has positioned itself and its brand as the world's number one university it works best if you use it to hack a Harvard education.

So now that we've got the disclaimers out of the way, let's look at what you're actually paying for when you obtain a Harvard degree. (Or any degree for that matter.)

Why people go to Harvard...

1. To signal how smart and awesome you are.

You go to Harvard to signal how competent you are, and boy is it a great signal. A college education is all about signals. If you get an A in a class, that signals you have mastered the material at the highest level. If you get a lot of A's and graduate with a fancy Latin phrase next to your name, it signals you've mastered a lot of material at the highest level and that you can probably master any material. (Not only have you proven how much you know, but how much you're capable of knowing.)

Signaling is important. Throughout our lives we meet a lot of people -- hiring managers interview a lot of people, investors get pitched by a lot of people, and publishers review manuscripts written by a lot of people. It's hard to quickly figure out who is worth our time and who isn't, but signaling is one way this becomes possible. We identify Harvard graduates as smart, driven individuals because Harvard has developed their brand as the world's best signal of general competence and motivation.

2. To form a social network made up of other competent and motivated people.

I'm sure you've heard the phrase, It's not what you know, it's who you know. Both are pretty important, but who you know might be a better indicator of your potential for "success." Here's why -- the world is full of gatekeepers, people who stand between you and an outcome you desire. Since people are generally too busy or, frankly, not all that interested in what you want, every gatekeeper creates friction that can slow you down, or even stop you from getting what you want.

If you have a small or poorly-formed social network, there are going to be a lot of gatekeepers standing between you and your goal. The better your social network, the better your chances are of getting directly to someone who guards the gate you'd like to go through. Competent and motivated people tend to end up guarding important gates -- it's good to know these people. It's also good to have once seen them throw up at a frat party. Harvard is a great place to build a critical and valuable social network of influential gatekeepers. (Who also occasionally barf at parties.)

3. To receive an education.

Ah yes, an education -- the acquisition of content-specific knowledge. Education purists might take exception to the fact that I've placed this last. Don't get me wrong, I think education is tremendously important; it's just not what people pay for. You can get a Harvard education for free if you show up in Cambridge and audit enough classes. However, you won't be able to prove to anybody that you actually learned anything, and you won't be able to interact with students and faculty as a member of the elite Harvard club, which is exactly why people pay over $40,000 a year instead of auditing a class for free to learn the same thing.

But wait! I've found a way you can keep your signal, build and enjoy your social network, and receive your Harvard education without having to pay quite so much. And, I've got it down the three steps so you don't even have to remember that much.

Ready for it? Okay, here goes...

How to get a (discounted) Harvard education in three easy steps...

Step 1: Get into Harvard.

This is the hard part. But the fact that getting into Harvard is so hard is the reason this plan works. Statistically Harvard is almost impossible to get into. Below is a distribution of the world's population based on competency and motivation:


Harvard received 35,000 applicants for the class of 2015 and had an acceptance rate of 6.2%. That means 93.8% of applicants were rejected. That's 32,830 rejections. Basically you have to be an absolute paragon of academic virtue to get in. And with so many applicants, Harvard's admission team can't make a mistake and let in a dud. The only exception is when they admit legacy students, whose main accomplishment is having important parents. Though they might not be equal in academic standing to their new cohort of Harvard elite, legacies are still useful for building social networks, so having a few around doesn't hurt anybody.

Because it's so hard to get into, most people in the world can be confident that anybody who gets IN to Harvard is already talented and motivated, which leads to the next step...

Step 2: Drop out after one semester.

You've already gained most of the signaling value with your acceptance letter, so why spend all the money to get the diploma? Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are both famous Harvard drop-outs. Why do we mention that they are famous Harvard drop-outs and not famous college drop-outs? Because the Harvard part is important.

It would be hard to prove, but I'm fairly confident that somewhere along their way, early on for both of them, some gatekeeper somewhere decided to let Bill and Mark though some gate with the confidence that they would not be let down because the college drop-out in front of them was good enough to get into Harvard. Once that gate was open their talent took over, but the fact that they once received a hard-to-get acceptance letter with crimson colors was enough of a signal to get past the gatekeeper's natural friction.

As far as the social network is concerned, you don't need four years to make friends. In fact, most people's best college friends are the people they meet in their first semester. And after your first semester, you've already met enough future gatekeepers to help you on your way. This is Harvard after all.

Which leads us to the next step...

Step 3: Hang-out in Cambridge for three and a half more years.

This is the easy part. While you're there, hang out with your friends. You already have your social network, but you should spend time strengthening the links in the chain. And since your course load will be a bit lighter, you can invest more effort in the social experience.

Future gatekeepers like parties. Throw them. Also, you should still go to classes. But only go to classes that interest you and that you're passionate about. Most faculty members will let you audit classes for free, and the ones that don't probably aren't worth knowing or learning from anyway. You're surrounded by some of the best minds in the world (faculty and student body included) -- learn from them. Learn in adaptive (if stats 100 is too easy, jump to stats 200) and experiential (if you want to learn physics go work in a lab) ways.

Like I said, education is important. And it's an undeniable fact that a Harvard degree will always hold a certain ivory-tower sort of prestige. But that's precisely why you don't need it. Well, you don't need the degree itself. Because long as you've got your signal, your network, and your audited education then you've got all the keys you need to get through the majority of life's doors.