*This response was originally posted on Quora. Follow our founder, Raj Patil, there for more 🙂
Not sure how you’re defining “successful professionals,” (there could be a tasty sidebar conversation about what success is or isn’t), but I also don’t think it matters for the question you’re asking. Here’s a thought experiment: Take a cohort of Harvard students, and teleport those freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors to a much-lower-ranked university in America, without the brand name of a Harvard. And cut ‘em loose. What happens, short-term, long-term? Here are a few guesses:
Some of these guys won’t get looked at by places like McKinsey, Bain, BCG, bulge bracket banks, etc. because Harvard is the pond of choice when those types of companies go fishing. So a bright member of this cohort who now attends a no-name school may not get that analyst gig at an MBB consulting firm upon graduation. The same goes for any other industry that regards top-name schools as a shorthand for competence, or that builds its reputation on being full of clever Ivy leaguers.
Whereas some Harvard grads can leverage the alumni network to get an “in” at many places, the graduates from lower-reputation schools might not enjoy as vast a network, or as much career lubrication.
Now… here’s the important part: in spite of those two points above, I believe this cohort of students will nonetheless “become successful” one way or another in the long term, because of their drive and intellectual capabilities. Put differently, most graduates of Harvard are gonna make sure they’re successful because that unwavering devotion TO success is a big part of what got them accepted to Harvard in the first place. That ambition remains even if we move them all to another school.
These are the types of students who, if a telephone pole collapses onto the road in front of them, won’t turn around and pick a new, easier destination. They’ll find a new route. It may take longer. It may not be as smooth, and the road(s) may not look as good. But they’re still gonna get to their destination one way or another. That determination to succeed isn’t created by the school itself, it’s usually there to begin with.
BUT … Cohort Matters
But it’s more than just one individual’s internal engine driving him/her forward. Much of the learning and value of the college experience happens outside the classroom, through the collision of ideas between these similarly-motivated students who come from different backgrounds and have different ways of looking at the world. An individual’s future success is positively impacted by the company s/he keeps in college. Or, can be. Cohort matters, in other words. And a big part of “Harvard’s value” is that that cohort is a high concentration of ambitious, bright, driven individuals. Yes, legacy students and folks who paid their way in comprise a percentage of any Harvard class. But, the “density” of highly-qualified folks who earned their place there legitimately is as high as it gets. Transplanting that cohort of Harvard students to another place will still enable them to interact with each other, buttressing each other’s potential.
So, do the students make Harvard or does Harvard make the students… I think there’s a symbiotic relationship at play. Remember that hypothetical lower-ranked college from my bizarre example? Here’s the thing. In order for that exact cohort of bright, driven, talented students to wanna apply to and attend that school in the real world… there needs to be a draw.
The magic of Harvard’s reputation (deserved or not) is that it’s a lure for (1) unparalleled brand power, but also (2) a dangerously talented and driven cohort. In that sense, the aura of Harvard attracts the “best and the brightest” … and the chemical reaction that happens when you concentrate the best and the brightest in one place serves to burnish Harvard’s reputation. The cycle repeats and reinforces itself.
TLDR; it’s both at the same time. Remarkable students help Harvard generate future successes, which attracts remarkable students who help Harvard generate future successes… (and so on).
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