August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

Is a Harvard Degree Worth It?

At 14 I won a scholarship to an exclusive New England boarding school where I proceeded to get my butt kicked. All the tools I brought from a large, lower middle class, family from Pittsburgh promptly failed me. I was absolutely miserable for the first two years as I staggered through a stream of failures in sports, academics, and making friends. And though I genuinely enjoyed my senior year, I still had to pass my final exam in math to graduate—which I apparently did albeit with the lowest passing grade. When the headmaster handed me my diploma he smiled and whispered, “You never thought you’d make it, did you Augie?” as my classmates erupted in cheers for the underdog.

I recently called my old math teacher to thank him for the “gift” of that passing grade. He laughed and said that I passed on my own though we both knew the truth. I then asked why the school kept renewing my full scholarship each year despite my woeful performance. He just said, “Ah Augie, you were a nice guy.” Then he said he couldn’t believe that I would call just to thank him after 35 years.

“I don’t look at it that way Mr. Becker,” I replied, “I’m just so ashamed that it took me 35 years.”

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Recently I listened as a pundit extolled the virtues of state universities and community colleges. He argued that it is hard to justify the outrageous tuitions that our elite institutions are charging. After all, is that graduate student teaching engineering at Princeton really ten times better at imparting engineering?

I've heard this argument many times, and I am sympathetic. Not only did I matriculate at a state school, but it is unconscionable that so many students graduate saddled with $100,000 or more in debt. But while granting these obvious points, I think there are some implicit assumptions behind this argument to consider.

First, this argument rests on the convergent thinking that college is a trade school where we go to acquire practical “skills.” Most of us quickly outgrow our diplomas. I often think the real waste of money is all the folks who spend four years heads down in accounting only to quickly abandon the field. Can an 18-year old with no prior experience really be expected to choose a highly specialized field?

Second, as a history major, I’m a firm believer in the divergent value of a liberal education. College is not just skills; it is a place to discover possibilities. College is not just a place where we clamor to climb into some well worn career box, but a place where we get outside all the boxes we bring with us. The most important business skill is creativity, and creativity is not a skill at all. Creativity requires curiosity, questioning assumptions, resisting conventional thinking, and an ego with the courage to be wrong a lot. Creative leaders draw on analogies and metaphors from many disciplines, and it is not an accident that so many innovative solutions come from beyond the narrow confines of the discipline that originally posed the problem. Like a chess master, today’s leaders must be able to “see the board:” a board consisting of the countless permutations that lie outside the four walls of the business. Most businesses fail not because their leaders lack skills, but because they are narrow minded: blindsided by an emerging trend either unforeseen or more often dismissed.

Third, if real estate is location, location, location then business is people, people, people. Most of our careers plateau because we lack “soft” people smarts not “hard” skills. All too often our educational decisions for ourselves and our children do not take people into account.

Fourth and most importantly, leadership relies on values and attitudes and we get our values and attitudes primarily from peers not teachers, courses, and parents. As far back as the late 1950s, Lou Mobley was arguing that the most crucial things we learn in business come through osmosis. This suggests that we should be far more interested in the peers a campus supplies than the content of courses and the quality of instruction. To get better at golf only play with people who are better than you and this applies to picking a college as well. If we want big results, we must surround ourselves and our children with big thinkers. When I moved to North Carolina in 1985 after living in New York City, the first thing I noticed was a difference in mentality: People were just as smart and skillful but their thinking was narrow and their aspirations smaller.

After the rigors of my boarding school experience, college was a breeze. Yet I give far more money to my prep school than to my college. I do this not because Mr. Becker and his colleagues were so much better than the teachers I left behind in Pittsburgh. I give because I am grateful for the mind blowing experience I got from my fellow students. I give because I learned that it is far more important to be challenged than it is to be comfortable. I give because I learned how important it is to never quit.

Despite its agonies prep school radically transformed my thinking, my expectations, and my life. I left boarding school hungry for more transformation not just learning and I faithfully give so that other scholarship students can take this transformational journey as well.

I’m still not sure that any diploma is worth $200,000, but my experiences at boarding school suggest that choosing a college is more than a simplistic cost/benefit analysis centered on acquiring “skills” at the lowest possible cost.