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A Mother Writes

Gotta love those souvenirs, like the university email address… and the 200 grand in debt.

“Hey Clayton

You got this great free prestigious email address that you can keep forever—you did get something from your education J

I went through something similar to you a generation ago (but the tuition was considerably less) and built my own business with no benefit from my education at all.  My son is following in your footsteps at another Ivy right now–biology, the whole bit, even a love of languages and linguistics.  You validate everything I know to be true about the situation.  I constantly tell him that before investing so much time, effort and golden years of youth he should  see where it is all going.

Some people in bright economic times may be able to leverage their Ivy league degree as validation that they are intelligent and have learned “how to think”– but not too often.

My son considering switching to comp sci but he will probably stay at the Ivy.  So thanks for sharing your information.  It is helpful—but I will not sleep well tonight.

I am really glad that it all worked out for you, and I am sure you will continue with your success.

I do not donate to my alma mater either!”

I couldn’t have said it better…

beer-pongI got another round of questions from a reader, to which I’ve responded below:

1. When talking to a graduate of Columbia University (and former professor there) , I asked if he knew any students or taught any students that were/are struggling with depression and he said there was not ONE graduate student he knew that didn’t suffer from both. He says grad school was a “cavalcade of misery, at least for the first three years”. He says he does not know this to be true of undergrad students attending elite schools. Do you believe this to be true?

Could be. I don’t have a graduate degree myself, so I can’t attest to the difficulty of getting one. It seems like PhD programs often get a bad rap (I remember reading a tongue-in-cheek article on the lifestyle of PhD students entitled “So You’ve Chosen to Ruin Your Life”), but I don’t know how dependent it is on the specific school attended. I’m guessing it varies a lot.

As far as intensity of undergrad coursework is concerned, I think it depends heavily on what you study, and I’m guessing the same is true in grad school as well. I found Duke to be an intense and draining experience, but that’s probably because I was pre-med (and a science major) so many of my courses had heavy workloads and were graded on a curve. And since medicine tends to attract some of the best and brightest at the university, I was competing with an above-average demographic for a limited number of A’s, and many of the top students seemed to do nothing but study. If I had pursued sociology or art history instead, I would probably have a very different perspective. Then again, I don’t think Duke is as famous for grade inflation as many of the Ivies are, so the challenge probably varies quite a lot from place to place as well as from program to program.

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Princeton
A college freshman wrote to me with some questions on Ivy League schools: their merit, their policies, and their preferences. My responses follow.

1. When interviewing my head of school, who attended Penn approximately 20 years ago, he told me “no one graduated without a job”. This obviously has changed, but why do you think that is? Do you think it is the quality of Ivy League schools that has gone down?

That certainly may be part of it, but it’s not the whole story. The first question is, what do we mean by a “quality” education? What makes one school better than another? Is it the practical (i.e. professional) value of the education? The challenge it provides? Perhaps it’s the social experience, or the values the university conveys? I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a dramatic demographic, socioeconomic, and political shift in the Ivies over the past fifty or so years, but that doesn’t necessarily imply anything about the quality of the coursework. My general impression is that many elite private universities have rather academic curricula compared to their public counterparts, in the sense that they aren’t geared to train students for the “real world.” I’m not opposed to taking courses out of personal interest, but I think most students who are fresh out of high school are hoping to gain some vocational skills as part of their education, and in that respect I think many top-rated private schools don’t deliver.

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A Pre-Med Q&A

burnout_bachelor_erhoeht_stress_studentenn20100625062844

A pre-med wrote to me with some questions, which I’ve listed in bold, followed by my responses. I hope that this conveys some of the parental pressure and fatigue that is often experienced by students in intense majors.

 

“I can’t tell you how many times others would simply wave off my concerns and give me trite advice such as “no pain, no gain”, and “suck it up, you’re an adult now”.”

That pretty much echoes the feedback that I got as well, from my dad, my profs, and my advisors. I remember once when a student complained to the organic chemistry professor that the exams were obscenely difficult and his grades were jeopardizing his chances of getting into med school. The professor’s response was, “Well, the world needs ditch diggers too.”

 

“I’m lucky because I have parental support for my college education (so I’ll be graduating debt free), and also fortunate to have a good amount of financial savings on my own, so I can afford to take time off to travel.”

Awesome! You can at least be glad that your finances are stable. The most brutal stories seem to come from students who are in over their head with debt when they graduate… and then still can’t find work. I was somewhere in the middle – my parents covered my first two years at Duke, and I paid for the remaining two with a trust fund from my grandparents, which at the time had about $100K in it (suffice it to say, I spent the entirety of it on college). So I also graduated debt-free, but I was left with no savings, so when I couldn’t find work after graduating, I was forced to move out of North Carolina and into my mother’s basement on the other side of the country.

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Pyrrhus

A pre-med on a UC campus wrote to me this week (the response follows):

“Dear Clayton,

Thank you so much for writing your blog- I searched all over the internet for a blog that would express the way I felt, and I finally found yours. […] When I was a high school senior, I applied to all the Ivy Leagues (but was rejected from all of them) but was accepted to every campus of the University of California. At the time, I was very disappointed to not have gotten into any Ivy League, because I too had a carefully crafted resume with a 1500/1600 SAT, extra-curriculars with regional awards, and had sacrificed so many of the same things that you gave up to go to an elite college…basic things a lot of people take for granted in life such as a normal childhood and teenage social life. Those precious experiences that we really only get to experience once in life, I gave up because I had tremendous family and also personal pressure to “succeed” and go to an elite college. Because I didn’t get into the Ivies, I decided to go to the pre-med program, believing that the program would allow me to get into professional school a lot more easily and thus alleviating the academic and extracurricular pressure that has plagued me all my life. I also thought the program would be a lot easier than what I would experience at an Ivy League. It turned out to be anything but easy. My classmates were all of similar caliber (most would have attended UC Berkeley or UCLA if they didn’t come here), and grading is extremely rough with average of C. I cannot tell you how much I utterly despise my life here. Your experience really struck a chord with me- the cutthroat-ness of the place, how incredibly hard the classes are, how the work comes in massive waves that I try not to drown in…I spend literally all my time studying and I never feel good enough. My 3.7 GPA is a massive accumulation of pain and stress, and because the program is so accelerated, I will be finishing my bachelor’s degree in 2 years, because I came into college with a lot of AP units and I also took summer classes.

But at least, reading your blog has been a cathartic experience for me. I’m writing right now because its the week before finals, and I’m completely broken down right now. I’m at the end of the 2 years, but I can’t seem to push myself any further.I’m burned out beyond belief, and the worst part is that, I’ve completely lost interest in becoming a doctor. Life has become simply a matter of getting through one more day, and I’ve lost my original vision, goals, and dreams. Continue Reading »

Larson

One might think that America’s best universities would be intent on recruiting the top minds in the nation, but that’s often not the case. Instead, many highly-ranked private schools provide special preferences for anything but stellar academics. Brace yourselves: If you want a place at one of America’s elite universities, the answer may not be to study hard and get good grades, but rather to be born into the right circumstances – i.e., to be of the right race, religion, socioeconomic background, legacy status, or athletic ability.

Affirmative action – or just plain racism?

Not long ago, Harvard was charged with ethnic discrimination against Asian applicants. The following article discusses this issue at great length and suggests that the accusation is indeed well-founded. It additionally reveals a pattern of discrimination against gentile whites (Euro-Americans), as well as arbitrary favoritism toward Jewish students. Harvard employs an affirmative-action program to ensure that it has an abundance of ethnic minorities, but in the process knocks out some of its would-be best and brightest. How good can America’s top-rated university be if it’s not even meritocratic?

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Today I offer yet another laundry list of stories, this time focused on top-tier grads who face underemployment, some of whom work in minimum-wage positions.

Harvard to Homeless and Other Anecdotal Evidence Not to Go to Law School
http://butidideverythingrightorsoithought.blogspot.com/2010/09/harvard-to-homeless-and-other-anecdotal_21.html

“In April of 2009, almost one year after I had graduated from Ivy League, I began a pretty hardcore job search […] By September, I had my first job in the restaurant industry serving room service at 6 a.m. “
http://underemployedinnyc.blogspot.com/

“So here I am. Eight years of experience, a Master’s degree, and an Ivy League school. You’d think I could at least get an entry-level position.”
http://gawker.com/5992314/unemployment-stories-vol-32-you-are-slowly-erased-from-the-lives-of-your-friends

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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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princeton-university

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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homeless

After receiving a submission from someone saying he had never met an unemployed Ivy Leaguer, I felt compelled to find more stories of graduates of elite universities who can’t find work. Turns out, it’s not difficult… the more I look, the more I find. Below are about 35 more articles chronicling cases of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, insurmountable debt, and general shock-and-awe stories coming from graduates of top-tier universities.

A new Stanford grad on food stamps
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57359795/a-new-stanford-grad-on-food-stamps/

Yale grad: “Turns Out My Ivy League Education Is Worth Squat”
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rek-lecounte/us-my-ivy-league-educatio_b_2924315.html

Columbia grad: “$60,000 Ivy League Degree Was Just a Pyramid Scheme”
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lilly-odonnell/college-costs-loans-debt_b_1890254.html

55-year-old Dartmouth graduate is unemployed and homeless
http://www.viralviralvideos.com/2011/08/09/55-year-old-dartmouth-graduate-is-unemployed-and-homeless/

Harvard Grad Seeks Babysitting Jobs
http://www.forbes.com/sites/baldwin/2013/01/18/harvard-grad-seeks-babysitting-jobs/

Princeton grad works at a video store
http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2011/news/economy/1105/gallery.lost_generation/index.html

Dartmouth grad – “Ivy Leaguer Shocked By Likely Future As Burger Flipper”
http://gawker.com/5003010/ivy-leaguer-shocked-by-likely-future-as-burger-flipper

Stanford grad, unemployed and living with parents, reflects on his first year after graduation
http://www.voicewaves.org/2012/05/stanford-grad-reflects-on-year-since-graduating/

Yale, Penn, George Washington University sue graduates over loan debts that they can’t pay back
http://business.time.com/2013/02/08/schools-suing-graduates-for-defaulting-on-loans/

Stanford Law school grad turned call girl under house arrest after cheating the government
http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/law-school-grad-turned-call-girl-cristina-warthen-house-arrest-cheating-government-article-1.402237

Emory Law Student Lament: ‘We don’t need donuts, we need jobs.’
http://abovethelaw.com/2010/07/emory-law-student-lament-we-don’t-need-donuts-we-need-jobs/

Being an Unemployed Ivy League Grad
http://etiennema.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/being-an-unemployed-ivy-league-grad/

Even a Yale Pedigree Could Leave One Unemployed
http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/649281/posts

Discussion –how many elite school grads are in those unemployed statistics?
http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/parents-forum/1353870-how-many-elite-school-grads-those-unemployed-statistics-2.html

The adventures of an unemployed Columbia grad
http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/1177/the-adventures-of-an-unemployed-columbia-grad/

Unemployed Duke grad who got a spot on the TV show “The Apprentice” couldn’t even keep that
http://blogs.newsobserver.com/tv/duke-grad-called-elitist-kicked-off-apprentice

A self portrait created in 2003 may help this struggling, 2012 Duke graduate to find her way out of poverty
http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-795060

Cornell Grads Find Fewer Jobs, Earn Less Than In Previous Years
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/19/cornell-grads-find-fewer-_n_542476.html

“Underemployment hits double digits for schools listed below ninth-ranked University of California, Berkeley.”
http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865577918/Unemployment-crisis-for-law-school-grads-deepens.html?pg=all

From Ivied Halls to Traveling Salesman (includes a UPenn grad)
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203733504577024090027351410.html

Fewer University of Chicago and Northwestern law graduates finding jobs at law firms
http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-12-16/business/ct-biz-1216-chicago-law-20111216_1_law-firms-law-school-elite-law

“It’s interesting when an alumna suggests that a professor at her law school is interfering with her ability to find employment. And it’s downright sensational when the unemployed lawyer is a Stanford Law School graduate.”
http://blogs.findlaw.com/california_case_law/2012/08/stanford-grads-defamation-case-plagued-by-inadmissible-evidence.html

9% unemployment for recent Georgetown grads
http://cew.georgetown.edu/unemployment/

MIT grad still unemployed after a year
http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/parents-forum/1339593-graduated-year-ago-still-unemployed.html

MIT computer science graduate couldn’t find a job
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704699604575342751927334436.html

“Six months after graduating from Princeton University, 22-year-old Kati Henderson was still looking for work.”
http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2012/12/princeton_universitys_2012_gra.html

Georgetown graduate unemployment rises
http://georgetownvoice.com/2010/02/18/graduate-unemployment-rises/

“Unhappy anniversary: My first year of joblessness” – Recent Johns Hopkins graduate wonders what Congress is doing to help
http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2011-07-14/news/bs-ed-unemployed-20110714_1_informational-interviews-unhappy-anniversary-federal-unemployment-benefits

Discussion – Unemployed or underemployed recent Top-20 college grads
http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/parents-forum/794669-unemployed-underemployed-recent-top-20-college-grads-why.html

Report: Many Emory Law Students Underemployed After Graduation
http://vahi.patch.com/groups/editors-picks/p/report-many-emory-law-students-underemployed-after-graduation

“8 months out, no job… I guess my Ivy League Master’s Degree was a waste of money”
http://personalitycafe.com/education-career-talk/132189-8-months-out-no-job-i-guess-my-ivy-league-masters-degree-waste-money.html

Ivy League degree, no job
http://money.cnn.com/2011/05/17/news/economy/recession_lost_generation/index.htm?iid=HP_LN

Life after the Ivy League: Surviving unemployment without losing all self-confidence
http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/parents-forum/1172529-life-after-ivy-league-surviving-unemployment-without-losing-all-self-confidence.html

Google Is Not Impressed by Your Fancy Ivy League Credentials
http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2013/06/24/google-is-not-impressed-by-your-fancy-ivy-league-credentials/