I’ll read anything Malcolm Gladwell writes. He makes any subject fascinating. He provides unsuspected insights. And he does it all with beautifully lucid prose. Who knew that Goliath didn’t stand a chance against David?
You can discover how and why David’s victory was a sure thing in Gladwell’s most recent book, appropriately titled “David and Goliath (Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants).” The book is also a $29 investment that could save you thousands of dollars if you happen to be a parent wondering how you’ll pay the bill for your bright kid who wants to go to Harvard (or Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Brown or any of the elite private universities).
College is expensive. We all know that. The current tuition at Harvard is $38,891 and the estimated total cost, including room, board, fees and books, is $59,950. For one year. The other top private schools are in the same ballpark. Call it a quarter mil for an undergraduate degree. It is more than twice as much as a public university.
Is it worth it? Should you do it? You can’t help wonder.
In the book, Gladwell makes a good case against paying the freight. He also argues that your child may be happier and more successful after going to a school that isn’t as tough and demanding.
To explain, he tells the story of a very bright girl who loved science. She applied to Brown— easily one of the most competitive schools in America— and got in. Her first semester was fine. Then she took chemistry and had trouble understanding it. It shook her confidence.
A year later she took organic chemistry. She was crushed. Surrounded by students who seemed to understand the subject immediately, her confidence sank still further. Even though she was probably in the top one percent of all students in the world who take organic chemistry, the fact that she compared poorly to the students in her particular class weighed so heavily that she decided to drop science.
This isn’t a unique experience. Half of the students who start in science, engineering or mathematics change to another major within the first two years of college. They walk away, Gladwell points out, from the most valuable degrees you can earn in college.
That loss, he suggests, may not be necessary. The decision to drop out may be entirely situational. Gladwell observes that students in the top one-third of the class at Harvard have an average math SAT score of 753, while students in the bottom third have an average math score of only 581. The students in the top third get 55.5 percent of the science degrees, while the students in the bottom third get only 15.4 percent.
In a less-demanding school the top third of students had an average math SAT score of 569 while the bottom third had an average score of 407. Again, the top third got 55 percent of the science degrees, while the bottom third got only 17.8 percent.
The important fact here is that students in the top third of the less-demanding school would have been in the bottom third at Harvard, but the distribution of science degrees is identical at both schools— those in the bottom third exited science much more frequently than those in the top third. So, if the bright girl who loved science had chosen to go to a less-demanding school, she might still love science and have a science degree, simply because she would have been measuring herself against a less competitive group.
This, by the way, doesn’t mean our universities would be producing more, but mediocre, scientists, engineers and mathematicians. Gladwell cites other research on PhD programs showing that the top one percent students from much-less-demanding schools produce more research papers in the first six years of their academic careers than most of the people who won PhDs at the most demanding graduate schools in the country— Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and the University of Chicago.
The environment that can be incredibly exciting for some—a university filled with really smart people— may also work to demoralize some of those students simply because they will find themselves in competition with other students who are even smarter.
This reality opens the door to having a happier child who excels in the subject he or she loves, simply by opting for a school that is less competitive. It may also save enough money to help a parent and child to avoid getting a degree mortgaged with student-loan debt.
Rodman A. Sharp died in 2012 after years of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 82. He was also a dear friend and neighbor when my wife and I lived in Santa Fe. He had invited me to join a group of men who had breakfast together every Tuesday morning. It was a wonderful group. Never, not once, did we resort to the banality of professional sports talk. Instead, we talked science, philosophy, history, music, economics, children and grandchildren.
After Rod could no longer remember how to get home, I drove him to our weekly breakfasts. While Malcolm Gladwell gives us good reason to not be set on going to a top school, he may have missed something: That many who hit a wall in science, engineering or math may have adapted and found still better futures.
The story of Rod’s earlier years shows how this can happen. A quiet, almost self-effacing, man, I spent hours with him before I understood how much he had done, and how capable he was.
Rod made an important discovery while a PhD student in nuclear chemistry at Harvard. “My thesis advisor was a Nobel Prize winner, “ he once told me. “I figured out pretty quickly that I was never going to win a Nobel Prize. So I had better stick to what I was good at doing.”
Faced with what he thought was a personal limitation, he adapted. He took stock of what he was good at doing. Instead of becoming an academic research scientist, he became a scientist-businessman.
He was happy building electronic instrumentation and understanding how to put electronic information to use. In his career he was the CEO of three high-tech start-ups applying his knowledge to medical instruments, oceanographic instruments, and very high capacity computer disk drives. Later, he was also a founder of Blockbuster Corporation.
Most people would look at Rod’s life and not see any limitation whatsoever. He was more accomplished than the vast majority of people on the planet. But he saw, and felt, his limitation— just as clearly as many aspirant doctors see theirs when they take organic chemistry.
So he adapted. Instead of trying to be a pure research scientist, searching for fundamental discoveries, he focused on creating leading edge tools. He succeeded where he could succeed.