Archive for the ‘Personal Opinions & Experiences’ Category

AmherstMAHPI received this today:

“Dear Clayton,

My name is [redacted] and I am a rising freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, majoring in computer science. I came across your blog after doing research for a final AP macroeconomics project on college grad unemployment. After being done with high school and information to be filled out as requested by college, I finally had the time and thought to write to you.

Your blog posts are well-written even if they rant – it is very hard to give logical arguments in the midst of anger and misery. Your collection of elite education “warning stories” are rich and convincing. Most importantly, think back to your past words:

“In the end, my goal is to help people make better decisions and to avoid making what could well be a catastrophic choice purely out of ignorance and naïveté. This is something my academic advisors never did for me, and I paid the price. It sickens me to see this happening to other people, and I want to put an end to it. My cause is as noble as any can be.”

I believe that you did what you intended to do with your blog, for me.



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In a few weeks, I’ll be setting foot on campus at Princeton as a freshman. Luckily, with financial aid and scholarships, my education turns out to be more than free, so I’m not overly worried about the prospect of undergraduate debt. However, I would still like, when I graduate, to be marketable to some extent so I don’t have to incur mountains of graduate debt. What advice do you have for someone in my situation? What would you have done differently?

My response:

Thanks for writing, and congrats on the scholarships. You’ve dodged a major financial bullet and one of the most compelling reasons not to attend a private school.

Some of the advice I would offer depends on what you study and what you choose to pursue as a career. It depends also on what you’re looking for in a college experience, and what you want your life to look like afterward. But I can at least make some general suggestions, based on what I like to think is 20/20 hindsight.

1.       Remember that, for all its fame, Princeton is still just a school – nothing more, nothing less. Whatever your experience ends up being, remember that it’s only four years, and regardless of what happens, you will have options in the future. If you’re bright enough to get into Princeton, then you’re bright enough to shape your destiny beyond it. So if for whatever reason you find you’re not enjoying the experience, don’t let it get to you. Your life is not over if you don’t get straight A’s, and it does not reflect badly on you if you find the experience less than stellar, or don’t fit in with your peers and professors, or don’t enjoy your coursework. I took college far too seriously, and wound up totally burned out and miserable by the end. The intense classes, the competitive students, the blood, sweat, and tears that went into getting my diploma – they just weren’t worth Ultimately, I ended up hating the classroom and resenting formal education in general, which is really not a healthy perspective to have.


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One gentleman wrote in with a litany of complaints and personal criticisms. Below is a copy of this e-mail, with his comments in quotes and my responses in italics.

“You need to change the name of your blog.  You keep referencing the Ivy League when you didn’t even attend an Ivy League university.  You’re lucky the Ivy League hasn’t sued you for libel yet.”

You’re right, I didn’t attend an Ivy, but this blog isn’t just about me, and no other phrase is so quickly and readily associated with top-ranked schools. Many people refer loosely (albeit erroneously) to roughly the top 15-20 universities as the “Ivy League,” and for lack of a better term, I’m doing the same. I suppose I could call it the “The Ivy-and-Ivy-Equivalent Lie,” but somehow that just doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so well. 

As for the accusation of libel: Last time I checked, our great nation still has something called the First Amendment. For me personally, college sucked, and I have every right to say what I please about my own experiences. As far as more general statements are concerned, it’s not libel unless it’s patently and demonstrably untrue, and there are plenty of articles cited on this blog to back up the assertions I’ve made.

“You made the wrong choice of school to attend.  You should’ve went to Yale or MIT.  Duke is a great school, but in reality, its national reputation doesn’t come close to Yale or MIT’s.  Regardless of the rankings, Duke is better known for its sports teams than for academics.”

Maybe. In my experience, the perception of any given school is heavily dependent on where you are and what job you’re applying for. On the East Coast, Duke seems to be very well-regarded, and to be known for having students were not only bright but also more well-rounded than some of their Ivy League counterparts. Duke has slipped a bit in the ratings the last decade – when I started there it was tied for 4th with Stanford and MIT – whereas now it’s hovering around #8 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Regardless, it’s consistently a Top -10 university, so I disagree that there’s a very substantial difference between Duke and say, Columbia or Princeton. And personally, I disagree that I would be better off had I attended Yale or MIT. The key problems for me would have applied at any of these universities – namely, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, the tuition was exorbitant, and the coursework was painfully difficult and utterly irrelevant to any profession. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t even apply for any of those schools, let alone consider attending one of them.


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My name is [redacted] and I stumbled upon your blog while searching for posts about the Ivy League.

I was rejected from all of the Ivies or Ivy-equivalents I applied to (or rather, mostly wait-listed and then rejected). I was accepted to Swarthmore […] as well as “safeties” which awarded me merit scholarships. I was also rejected by schools considerably less selective than the Ivies…

My high school experience was similar to yours. I graduated with highest honors in the top 10% of my class; took 11 AP and 6 honor courses; earned school wide, local, and national awards; and have extensive leadership experience in unusual areas (founder/president of two clubs, congressional intern, created and taught an actual class at my school, varsity tennis).


I’m not writing to you simply to vent–I’m looking for advice. Since my dismal decisions were released, I’ve been feeling great anxiety over the fact that I worked so hard for sub-par results. Of course Swarthmore is amazing, but I still regret not studying harder for the SAT points, or bringing that A- up, or my AP Stats score of 3. I also constantly rethink my essays, most of which I thought were great, coming up with possibly more successful topics. Like you, I traded a healthy social life for strong academic success, but without reaping the full, albeit possibly not-worth-it, rewards.


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In fact, it could well wind up being the worst four years of waking existence you’ll ever encounter… Unless, of course, you’re one of the unfortunate souls who faces the post-graduation fate worse than death: that of chronic unemployment and crippling student debt. In that case, every four years after you graduate will probably be your worst, until and unless you manage to regain some financial and emotional stability. Welcome to hell, but no, don’t call it that: you’re living the American dream.

For me at least, the private school experience was a nightmare. The curriculum was obscenely difficult and massively time-consuming, the students were competitive – no, cutthroat describes them better – the classes were impersonal, and for the most part, the professors (assuming the classes weren’t taught by a teacher’s aid) came across as indifferent to the success of their students. The curriculum matrices that had to be satisfied for graduation were ridiculously elaborate, and left me in a position where I almost never had the freedom to enroll in a course without first considering which graduation requirements it would fulfill. By and large, I felt like a bee in a hive, an unpaid laborer in a fool’s-gold gulag, a cog in a superficially dramatic but ultimately profoundly overpriced machine. By the end of four years, I was so burnt out that the strange malaise of perpetual exhaustion which set in roughly 10 years ago has never lifted. The stress, the frustration, the anxiety all penetrated too deeply, and left a scar that will not fade. But the real salt in the wound is the realization that the four years you just spent in college, busting your chops to get straight A’s (and spending your half your parents’ life savings in the process) is totally useless, no one cares what you studied or how well you did, and you have to start over.

In fairness, not everyone has this experience, and in spite of what you’ve just read, even for me there were some good experiences mixed with the bad. I certainly met some very smart and fairly interesting people, I made some lasting friendships, I had more than a few wild and crazy and unforgettable experiences. But the outpouring of negativity you read in the previous paragraph – that accounted for 90% of my time at Duke: the perpetual grind. Thousands of hours spent memorizing textbooks and writing lengthy essays about obscure scientific factoids that in hindsight are laughably irrelevant and of no real interest to anyone but academic fools and immature students who don’t know any better. Thousands of hours wasted fighting to climb to the top of the curve, to achieve the most and be the best in what, it turns out, is really nothing more than a pointless game which no one gives two shits about in the real world (i.e. the next 60 years of your life).

Certainly much of my pre-and post-graduation experience owes to aspects of my personality and decisions that I made, including choice of major, study habits, values, and personal pursuits. Yes, I could have done things very differently, and could have had a better experience. But on the flipside, a lot of what left me feeling bitter was external: the pedantic and unnecessarily difficult coursework; the oversized and impersonal classes; the random hodgepodge of immature, nerdy bookworms, stuck-up rich kids, arrogant profs, and TAs that couldn’t speak a word of English; and the jaw-dropping price tag for what was, in the grand scheme of things, a stunningly mediocre experience.

College doesn’t have to be like this. Unlike me, some people I know actually look back fondly on their university years. Most of us are familiar with the saying that college is the best four years of your life. It’s cliché and I doubt it’s actually the case too often, but no matter how college plays out for you, there’s simply no reason to make catastrophic sacrifices investing in what may turn out to be a disappointment. If you attend a public school, at least you’ll save money and enjoy comforts like a moderate workload and less-than-fiercely-competitive peers – which in turn, will leave you with less stress and more time to spend making friends, building positive experiences, and figuring out what you really want to do with your life. And even if college doesn’t turn out the way you would’ve liked, hopefully you’ll at least graduate with enough energy and cash to find a way forward. The things which matter most in the end don’t require the phony glitz of an Ivy League diploma. Take it from a guy who gave up everything (like social skills, mental stability, life savings, and the opportunity for a normal childhood) for the sake of pursuing an “elite” education: it simply isn’t worth it. No, really, it isn’t. So save yourself the hassle now (and the heartbreak later), and throw that application to Harvard in the trash.

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Several weeks ago, I received a phone call from David Maxon, a journalist at Freakonomics, who stumbled across this blog in the course of doing some research on educated people who are or have been unemployed or underemployed. He subsequently conducted an interview with me about my experiences looking for work (and failing to find it) after graduating from Duke.

A brief segment of that interview was featured on NPR’s Marketplace segment on Wednesday, May 1, in a story called “It’s Crowded at the Top.” If you missed the radio program, a podcast version is available online at either of the following links:



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I recently posted a link to this blog on Facebook, and an acquaintance responded that he didn’t understand the purpose of the site. What exactly was I trying to accomplish? After a bit of reflection, I realized that “The Ivy Lie” is rather a hodgepodge of article links and personal commentary, so I’d like to take a moment to point out why I set this site up in the first place.

I’ll repost portions my friend’s comments (with personal details removed), as well as my responses. Hopefully this will give a better idea of what this blog is all about.

He stated: “I’m not sure I understand the blog fully. What does the institution have to do with difficulties in finding jobs? I think some of the stories were of people that are expecting six figures because they went to an “elite” school […] Getting a piece of paper from a fancy school doesn’t make you any smarter or capable than anybody else, and certainly does not entitle you to high salary jobs.”

And I replied: “Precisely! But I’d venture to say that many if not most students who choose to attend these sorts of schools expect precisely that. Maybe not that they are entitled to a six-figure job after graduation, but that the education they will receive at such an “elite” school is genuinely good enough that they will have the necessary knowledge and skills to land a highly paid (and interesting) job, and certainly not have to deal with unemployment or poverty. I definitely wouldn’t have gone to Duke if I had thought otherwise, but my experience was precisely the opposite: Instead of finding my dream job, I wound up a broke, unemployed emotional basket case, living in my mom’s basement and wondering what the hell I had done wrong… when in reality, the whole thing was an illusion in the first place.”

He also said: “I received my BS [in an engineering discipline] from [a state university] and I have no problems [finding work].”

To which I replied: “That’s exactly the point of this blog – to demonstrate that state school educations are perfectly adequate, and that it’s all about what you study, not where you study it. But there are tens of thousands of students every year who swallow the Ivy League pill, believing that it will open doors that would be totally absent otherwise, and instead wind up under a mountain of debt and are left with a degree which sounds prestigious but that provides no practical skill set. Instead of focusing on building useful practical skills for which there is real demand in the job market, they get caught up in the experience of being at an elite private school. They fail to realize that it does matter what they study, instead assuming that the name recognition alone will carry them (it’s an attitude along the lines of, “I went to Harvard – what more do you want?”). Suddenly, four years later, they get a dose of reality when they’re forced to look for work and can’t find it. For me at least, it took a long time to realize that my degree was basically useless, that I’d been lied to, and that I had to go back to school and start over if I was going to succeed in life. Basically, I’d like to get the message out to all these potential suckers (by which I mean Ivy League applicants) before they get themselves into a world of hurt like I did.”

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After months of silence, I’ve gotten several e-mails in the past 24 hours. I’m not sure what triggered this, but I figured I would post one of them along with my response.

“Regardless of your misgivings about college, you are still smarter than probably 99% of Americans out there. 92% of employable Americans have jobs. So while the issue of you wasting your time with college may be a subjective issue that I have no right to comment on, let’s just look at the facts. Even in this shitty economy, you can get a job because you are smarter, and thus vastly more employable, than most others.. And that was something that college did for you.”

And my reply:
“Hi there. In response to your comments: my complaint is not that college is a waste of time per se. My problem is that many degrees are impractical, and provide no useful or practical job skills, meaning that it’s quite possible to finish college and wind up unemployed or be forced to find work that has absolutely nothing to do with your degree. This is an especially painful experience if you attend a private school which costs an arm and a leg and is highly competitive. In addition, my academic and professional advisors were basically useless in providing advice on attaining practical skills, or in giving any perspective on what to expect after graduation.

Had I gone to a state school, I could well have ended up in the same boat professionally, but it wouldn’t have cost $200K and the workload would have been easier, meaning I would’ve graduated feeling a lot less stressed and burned out than I was. I also wouldn’t have spent so much time in high school preparing for the experience, which means I could have spent that time instead figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, developing better social skills, dating more actively, etc. Instead, I spent my adolescent years studying… which theoretically could be justified as means to an end, but in this case, the end was crap – bankruptcy, joblessness, living in my mother’s basement.

I have found a job again; in fact, I’m with a decent company now. However, I was forced to go back to school and get a second degree before I found work again (and I owe it all to my local community college). And the degree I pursued was entirely the result of my own research, and not thanks to anyone at Duke. And for what it’s worth, having a college degree is not particularly representative of intelligence, and whatever intelligence I have is certainly NOT the result of going to college.

My chief complaint at this point is that, given what I believe my potential is, I wasted many years of my life accomplishing nothing, while building up a lot of stress and anxiety and missing out on a lot of good experiences that other more “average” people I know have had. I can’t get those years back, but at least I can try to help others from making the same mistakes I did. That was the reason I started this blog.”

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For the last few weeks, I’ve been filling out applications for summer internships in software development, which is what I’m currently pursuing in school.

In hopes of expanding my options, I called the Duke University Career Center, which I utilized on a number of occasions as an undergrad. I called because although I’m a graduate, I needed information about undergraduate programs, and the standard Duke program for that (eRecruiting) is only available for active undergraduates.

When I asked them about this, they asked me what year I graduated. “2006,” I said. “I’m sorry, but our services are no longer available to you. Since you graduated more than 4 years ago, you’re no longer considered a recent graduate. Try the alumni network or graduate job posts.” (Incidentally, jobs for graduates are not what I need, and few of the available Duke alumni services members work in the IT industry. Been there, done that, no dice.)

Great. So for $200K and a nearly 10-year sacrifice of time and effort, I’m now left out in the cold and denied basic career advising services. Thanks a lot, Duke University. I can see I’m really getting my money’s worth.

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Actually, this applies to just about any private university or even public school if you’re from out of state. With some schools now costing over $50,000 per year – and that’s only including tuition, room & board, etc. (not travel fees or other personal expenses) – you might think twice before attending an Ivy League university. Sure, statistically it pays off, but unfortunately those statistics “don’t tell you about the economic handicap of repaying a six-figure college loan over decades or the resulting diminished ability to buy a house, car or comfortable lifestyle.”

In other words, your salary will most likely be higher if you attend an elite private college, but how much of those additional earnings are going to have to be used to pay off loans? And God forbid you’re one of those unfortunate souls that can’t find work at all – then what? You could spend decades dealing with financial hardship, but you at least you can say, “I went to Hah-vahd. I’m broke and the bank is coming after me, but I’m still smarter than you, you lowly state-school grad.”

Besides, now that we’re in the Great Recession, a lot of Ivy League schools are cutting back what I would consider essential services. Do you still want to fork up $200,000 if you have to deal with cut-backs like these or these or these?

In my experience, Ivy League schools are surprisingly bad when it comes to penny-pinching on basic expenses, even though they have multi-billion-dollar endowments (which they won’t touch). When I stayed on the Princeton campus in the summer of 2000, I was told that our dorm was one of the best on campus – but many of the crank windows didn’t work, the desks were rickety and looked like something from a one-room school from the 1800s, and the bathroom – all two toilets and three showers of it – had to service over 50 students.

My advice to all prospective “elite” school applicants: Don’t even consider it unless you can get a full-ride scholarship. And even then, it might not be worth it. I mean this seriously when I say it: Your local community college may give about the same education than you’ll get at Harvard (it’s likely to be more practical, at least). And if you’re going to be facing $200K of debt – well, honestly, what’s to like about the Ivy League?

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