Future Tense

Silicon Is the New Ivy

Is Stanford the Harvard of the 21st century?

Stanford University.
Stanford University

Courtesy of HarshLight/Flickr

Each year, the Princeton Review asks high-school students and parents across the country to name their “dream college.” Their top choices used to vary from one year to the next, but in recent years a consensus seems to have emerged. Harvard, the nation’s oldest and proudest university, is No. 2. Stanford is No. 1.

I’m dismissive of most college rankings. The annual U.S. News list in particular is a sham, assigning arbitrary weights to a mishmash of metrics in an attempt to reverse-engineer an “objective” formula for excellence. When it doesn’t produce the results the editors want, they change the formula.

But the Princeton Review survey doesn’t claim to be objective, and it doesn’t claim to rank the “best” colleges. What it captures is something less tangible yet more interesting: the higher-education zeitgeist. That zeitgeist has shifted to Palo Alto.

The numbers bear out the opinion survey’s findings. Stanford’s undergraduate acceptance rate has been inching closer to that of the top Ivies for years. This year it passed them, making Stanford the country’s most selective major university, with an admission rate of 5.7 percent. Harvard was second.

The same trend holds in fundraising. Between 1983 and 2004, Harvard brought in the most money of any school in every year save one. But Stanford topped it in 2005—and every year since. In 2012 Stanford became the first university ever to raise $1 billion in a single year. Harvard raised $650 million.

Again, none of these numbers tell us which is the better school. What they tell us is that Harvard’s centuries-old reputation as the nation’s most prestigious university is no longer secure. In terms of exclusivity, wealth, and desirability, Stanford may be the Harvard of the 21st century.

There are any number of possible explanations for the shift. Stanford has more space, better weather, newer facilities, lighter workloads, and a reputation for irreverence. Full disclosure: I chose Stanford over Harvard 13 years ago, mainly for its laid-back atmosphere. I had spent four years of high school stressed out over grades and academic competition, and I was not eager to spend the next four the same way.

But the most obvious factor in Stanford’s favor these days is, of course, its intimate relationship with Silicon Valley, whose technology companies have become the most dynamic drivers of growth in the American economy. As Ken Auletta detailed in a New Yorker cover story last year, the university and the valley grew up together. They feed each other. And these days, both hold the lure of fame and riches. Stanford students founded Yahoo, Google, Instagram, and Snapchat. Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook at Harvard but dropped out and moved to Palo Alto to make it big.

More broadly, Stanford’s best-known programs include computer science and engineering, while Harvard built its reputation on the liberal arts. In the American Century, elite U.S. liberal arts graduates had a clear path to positions of power in the world’s largest companies and institutions. But in the globalized 21st, new technologies are constantly upending the established order, and it’s often the coders and entrepreneurs who come out on top. It’s no surprise that the country’s new dream school should be the one that’s synonymous with startups.

Critics of Stanford’s ascendance worry that the university has become too close to Silicon Valley—that its values are being warped by the frothy cauldron of venture capital that surrounds it. Auletta’s New Yorker story, published in April, was headlined “Get Rich U.” Apparently the view of The Farm from Times Square has grown even dimmer since then: New Yorker Web editor (and ’90s-vintage Stanford alum) Nicholas Thompson penned a blog post this week titled, ominously, “The End of Stanford?” Observing that more than a dozen students recently left the school to join the same startup, he wondered whether his alma mater is even a university anymore or just “a giant tech incubator with a football team.”

That prompted an amusing rejoinder from a Stanford undergraduate in the campus paper. “East Egg has never quite understood West Egg, and the ancien régime has never quite understood revolution,” Miles Unterreiner wrote in the Stanford Daily. He went on to liken the school’s East Coast detractors to the European intellectuals who sniffed at America’s industrial spirit in centuries past. 

Culture clashes aside, the scrutiny seems unlikely to slow Stanford’s rise. In an ever more competitive economy, I don’t foresee a lot of kids or parents turning up their noses at a school on the grounds that it does too little to insulate its students from the promise of lucrative employment. What it does insulate them from is the fear of failure. The university’s unusually generous “stop-out policy” allows students to take up to two years off and return with no questions asked.

In future decades, the greatest challenge to Stanford’s pre-eminence could come not from Harvard but from the private sector. Online higher-education startups such as Coursera and Udacity may never offer an educational experience commensurate with that of today’s top colleges. Yet they threaten to undermine traditional universities’ business model by offering instruction from renowned professors far cheaper via the Web. Both were founded, appropriately enough, by Stanford faculty.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.