Wednesday June 6, 2012

There's a reason some parents obsesses over college the moment their squalling newborn is placed in their arms. It's because these parents have one goal for their children: Harvard.

Considered the golden ticket to the good life, obtaining entrance to Harvard is widely viewed as a remarkable feat.

The class of 2016 had a 6 percent acceptance rate -- down from the class of 2014, which had a 7 percent acceptance rate. And if you get into Harvard, you're going to go. More than nine out of 10 admitted students say yes.

In theory, all the sweat, money and tears of secondary school should be worth it -- right? Of the nine current justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, five went to Harvard Law School. Henry Paulson, Meg Whitman and Mitt Romney all went to Harvard Business School. (Romney has a Crimson-flavored J.D. as well).

And let's not forget JFK (or really, all of the Kennedys), Michelle and Barack Obama, Natalie Portman, Nicholas Kristof, Ben Bernanke and the author of this article.

But here's the unexpected part: Upon graduation, the reality of a Harvard degree can come crashing down upon one's head. As it turns out, there can be a stigma associated with being a part of the world's most ubiquitous symbol of elitism, snobbery and general smarty-pants-ness.

Numbers of alumni discover, oddly, that the degree they once coveted becomes the thing they are most loath to admit having.

Julia Taylor, class of 2010, is one of these people. Taylor works as an emergency medical technician in the Boston area, which requires only a high school diploma and a certification course. She generally avoids telling people where she went to school.

"There are people I work with who never went to college," she said. "When they realize you're young and smart and then you admit you went to Harvard, their immediate response tends to be, ‘What? What are you doing here?'"

Part of the problem is that a Harvard diploma is not, as it turns out, a guarantee of a job. Greg Panayis, a New York-based former hedge fund manager and venture capitalist with a Harvard MBA, said that very often when hiring for a hedge fund, he wouldn't give any extra attention to a Harvard résumé.

While Harvard Business School people are very capable, he said, "the ones who are the most impressive already have a finance background going in."

Jannis Brea, 24, another recent graduate who now works in software design, said that Harvard proved very little help when finding a post-graduation job. Dropping the Harvard name does "afford me a certain amount of networking," she said. "But to be honest I avoided dropping it because I didn't want to come off as conceited."

Brea also said that both she and her mother avoid telling people where she went to school.

"You drop the H-bomb and suddenly they go, ‘ Oh!' And that ‘oh' is laden with all sorts of stereotypes," she said. "It makes you less able to make mistakes."

For some who did not go to school "outside Boston" (code for Cambridge), the stigma against Harvard is alive and well.

Stephanie Joyal, 23, a recent Georgetown Univedrsity graduate, considers an H-bomb explosion an unwelcome addition to a conversation. She usually doesn't ask where someone went to school, she said.

"So if they're telling me," she went on, "I'm going to assume they think they're smarter than me."

Julia Daly, 19, grew up attending some of the swankiest prep schools in New York City. So she was inundated with the hubris of Harvard from birth. Now a freshman at Boston University, she said she has no regrets staying on the other side of the Charles River. "I didn't like the kids at my school," she said. "A lot of kids who go to private schools go to Harvard. If that was going to be the kids at Harvard, I wasn't interested in being around them."

Julia's mother, Vicki Daly, is a Harvard alumna of both the college ('75) and the business school ('81). A former TV producer and current playwright, she said that the Harvard name actually worked against her when she was trying to find jobs after graduation, and she had to spend time almost apologizing for her pedigree. "People had to forgive me for that fact that I went to HBS," she said. "I had to start from scratch and re-prove myself. It really worked against me."

Maya Shwayder, a Columbia School of Journalism student, would like all future employers to know that while she went to Harvard for her undergraduate degree, she apologizes and promises not to do it again.