Nov. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Getting into Harvard is rewarding; walking away can be even better.
Take Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, folk singer Pete Seeger, actor Matt Damon and more.
Overachievers all, by dropping out they put themselves in a group that’s proven to be twice as selective as the incoming freshman class, according to school statistics. Harvard College accepted 6.2 percent of almost 35,000 applicants for the 2011-2012 academic year. Its current graduation rate of 97 percent means just 3 percent leave before they’re done.
So when dropouts make it big -- and many do -- their Cambridge, Massachusetts, homecoming can be an event, like Zuckerberg’s was yesterday. The university called it his first official return since he left in 2004. No fewer than 200 onlookers, 50 reporters and 20 cameras crowded into a corner of Harvard Yard at dusk to witness the reunion of entrepreneur and ivy.
“This is a great time to come,” said Zuckerberg, 27, who was on a recruiting mission, meeting shortly after his brief public appearance with 200 students drawn by lottery in a session closed to the press. “There’s a lot of really smart people here, and a lot of them are making decisions on where they’re going to work in the next couple of weeks.”
Zuckerberg, sporting his trademark hoodie and jeans, also visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology yesterday and is scheduled for a similar session today at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Competition remains strong with Google Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and other Silicon Valley employers for the best young brains around.
‘Balls of Clay’
Eighteen-year old Harvard freshman Kevin Schmid was so thrilled to be selected for the closed session that he was visibly shaking.
“I’m just so excited, I’m antsy,” he said.
By welcoming Zuckerberg, what Harvard is also “unintentionally doing is subtly embracing the idea that the Harvard student doesn’t need Harvard,” said Steve Grossman, 28, an information technology service-desk analyst at Northeastern University in Boston. Grossman attended Harvard and he and Zuckerberg are former fraternity brothers at Alpha Epsilon Pi.
The university says its graduation rate is “among the very highest” in the U.S. and asserts that “everyone admitted” can complete all requirements, according to its website. The national college graduation rate is 63.2 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“Harvard is incentivized to perpetuate the idea that Harvard takes these potentials -- balls of clay -- and molds them into the best and brightest,” said Grossman.
Valley Versus Boston
Whether Harvard creates stars or simply finds them was addressed indirectly by Gates, who dropped out and went on to co-found the world’s biggest software company. Gates, who collected an honorary law degree in 2007, said in a speech that he “was transformed by my years at Harvard.”
Zuckerberg spoke about his Harvard days as recently as Oct. 29, when he told a Stanford University audience, “If I were starting now, I would have stayed in Boston.” Silicon Valley “is a little short-term focused, and that bothers me,” TechCrunch.com reported, citing the Facebook founder.
Zuckerberg started the social network in his Harvard dorm in 2004, the same year he dropped out. Now his company, based in Palo Alto, California, employs about 3,000 people and has a market value of about $68.3 billion, according to SharesPost Inc., an exchange for private shares. With an estimated net worth of $17.5 billion, Zuckerberg is listed as the 14th-richest American by Forbes magazine. In other Forbes 2011 rankings, he is the ninth most powerful person on the planet and the second-youngest billionaire.
Zuckerberg and Gates weren’t the first Harvard undergrads to catch the technology bug. Edwin Land, co-founder of Polaroid Corp., entered the college in 1926 and stayed for a year before leaving for New York and research that would lead to his instant-photo process, according to the National Academy of Sciences website.
The banjo-picking Seeger left after two years and wrote in his alumni yearbook that he “had been away from certain things that Harvard wouldn’t have been able to teach me,” according to the Crimson, the school’s daily student newspaper.
Damon, a member of the class of 1992, never finished, according to John Longbrake, a Harvard spokesman. Damon won a screenwriting Oscar for “Good Will Hunting,” in which the character he plays tells a Harvard student, “You drop $150,000 on an education that you could have gotten for $1.50 on late charges at the public library.”
F. Lee Bailey, Boston attorney and part of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” defense, won a Harvard scholarship and left in 1952 to join the U.S. Marine Corps as a fighter pilot, according to West’s Encyclopedia of American Law.
Time magazine’s Top 10 College Dropouts list last year included three Harvardians, the most for any school: Zuckerberg, Gates and architect R. Buckminster Fuller.
Henry David Thoreau, iconic dropout for his solitary Walden Pond years, left Harvard in his junior year because of illness, returning to graduate in 1837, according to the Thoreau Society website.
Still, Thoreau couldn’t resist a jab at diplomas, once made of sheepskin, in a letter to friend Ralph Waldo Emerson 10 years later.
“Let every sheep keep but his own skin,” he wrote.
To contact the reporter on this story: Tom Moroney in Boston at email@example.com.