11/07/2014 05:13 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Higher Education: The Ivy League Mystique

Years ago I was privileged to attend Harvard University for a few weeks in a special training program, not enough to claim to be an alumnus, but enough to get a flavor of the place. It was a memorable and positive experience. Harvard is an excellent institution that offers a great opportunity to students to learn from top flight professors and study in a progressive environment. The latest ratings from U.S. New & World Report rank Harvard best in the world but second among U.S. institutions of higher learning after Princeton, a curious anomaly that leads to a certain amount of head scratching, though Harvard still comes out well.

The question unanswered is whether the cost of attending Harvard or other Ivy League schools is justified in terms of the quality of education it offers compared to that of other institutions of higher learning, and whether the students really derive equitable benefits from their investment. Clearly, the customers believe it is worth the money. The daunting tuition bills are not daunting enough to daunt legions of eager applicants.

But I am skeptical that the quality is commensurate with the costs. I commanded thousands of bright people in the Signal Corps who attended public colleges and lacked nothing of substance. The simple fact is that one can acquire an excellent education from just about any credible university if he or she is determined to get it. There is a cachet attached to degrees from prominent institutions but cachet does not necessarily translate into professional achievement.

It is fairly said that matriculation at prominent schools enables students to develop friendships and contacts among the upwardly mobile and that can certainly be of benefit in some circumstances, but that too is a result of one's personal investment of time, energy and personality. Such exposure is of little benefit if you are not able to take advantage of it. It is not something that appears in the curriculum or that the schools can guarantee.

In fact, I believe the new generation is uniquely unsuited to take advantage of such exposure. The digital age is changing the way people work, play and interact with other people. They don't communicate, they text each other. While the professor is lecturing they are mentally miles away on their laptops, not really there at all. In earlier times, a major responsibility of public schools was to socialize young people -- teach them how to function in society, get along peers and adults and become responsible citizens. That is being lost. Harvard, Princeton and other elite schools are geared to that earlier age that is rapidly passing us all by.

I would advise young people today to skip the costs of prestigious institutions in favor of public schools that offer the same education for sensible fees. They can learn all that they need to know at a reasonable cost without bankrupting their parents, and still pursue whatever career path they have in mind.


Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.