CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In academia, where brand reputation is everything, one university holds an especially enviable place these days when it comes to attracting students and money. To find it from this center of learning, turn west and go about 3,000 miles.
Riding a wave of interest in technology, Stanford University has become America’s “it” school, by measures that Harvard University once dominated. Stanford has had the nation’s lowest undergraduate acceptance rate for two years in a row: 5.07 percent in 2014 and 5.7 percent in 2013; in five of the past six years, it has topped the Princeton Review survey asking high-school seniors to name their “dream college”; and year in and year out, it raises more money from donors than any other university.
No one calls Duke University “the Stanford of the South,” or the University of Michigan “the public Stanford,” not yet. But, for now, there is reason to doubt the long-held wisdom that the consensus gold standard in U.S. higher education is Harvard, founded 378 years ago, which held its commencement Thursday.
“There’s no question that right now, Stanford is seen as the place to be,” said Robert Franek, who oversees the Princeton Review’s college and university guidebooks and student surveys. Of course, that is more a measure of popularity than of quality, he said, and whether it will last is anyone’s guess.
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Professors, administrators and students in Cambridge insist that on the whole, they are not afraid Harvard will be knocked off its perch, either in substance or in reputation. But some concede that in particularly contemporary measures, such as excellence in computer science, engineering and technology, Harvard could find much to emulate in that California place.
“Harvard for a long time had sort of an ambiguous relationship to applied science and engineering,” said Harry Lewis, a computer-science professor and a former dean at Harvard. “It wasn’t considered the sort of thing gentlemen did.”
People in academia tend to roll their eyes at the incessant effort to rank colleges and universities, insisting they pay little attention to the ratings.
That has not stopped a growing list of organizations from taking a crack at it. In recent years ranking systems from U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, and Newsweek and The Daily Beast have, at various times, placed Harvard, Princeton University, Stanford, Williams College, Yale University and the U.S. Military Academy at the top of the heap.
Stanford basks in its image as the hub of Silicon Valley, alma mater to a string of technology moguls; incubator of giants such as Google, Yahoo and Cisco; and beneficiary of their success and philanthropy. While the university declined to comment for this article, administrators and professors there have voiced concerns that too much of the university’s appeal is based on students’ hopes of striking it rich in Silicon Valley.
Other colleges would love to have such problems.
“There has been an explosion of interest in engineering and related areas,” said Alan Garber, Harvard’s provost. “We simply have had a hard time keeping up with that demand.”
At the same time, he said, Harvard has a number of joint projects with its neighbor the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and “it doesn’t make sense for us to duplicate a lot of what MIT does within Harvard.”
About 5 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate degrees are awarded in computer science or engineering, compared with about 27 percent at Stanford.
At Stanford, about 90 percent of undergraduate students take at least one computer-programming class, compared with about half at Harvard.
The disparity has deep cultural roots at many liberal-arts institutions: Anything that looked like practical career preparation was seen as something less than real undergraduate education. Stanford, which established an engineering school in the 1920s, was never like that and has become one of many universities that worry about how far the pendulum has swung away from the humanities.
Harvard administrators have worked for years to expand offerings in computer science and engineering, but the going has been slow. Harvard created its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2007, and it is planning a new campus across the Charles River, largely for those studies.