Stanford Eclipses Harvard as Applicants Favor Innovation Focus

Viraj Mehta, a 17-year-old high school senior from Austin, Texas, received acceptance letters from both Harvard University and Stanford University. Like a lot of other students, he’s leaning westward.

Stanford, based near Palo Alto, California, received almost 8,000 more applications than its East Coast rival for the coming academic year. It accepted only 5.1 percent of applicants, making it more selective than Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard.

“The shift from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, and from finance to tech favors Stanford,” said Mehta, who has until May 1 to decide. While he is planning to visit both schools this month, his early favorite is Stanford. Still, he said, “Harvard does hold a special place in America. It has so much history.”

Stanford is outshining the Ivy League as its reputation for innovation and proximity to Silicon Valley attracts students, some drawn by the allure of jobs in technology, venture capital and related fields. Stanford’s endowment investments outperformed Harvard’s in the past fiscal year and it has raised more money annually for almost a decade.

The school helped spawn almost 5,000 companies in high technology and other fields, and companies started by faculty and alumni follow the rise of Silicon Valley: from Hewlett-Packard Co. to Yahoo! Inc. and Google Inc. to LinkedIn Corp. Social media magnate Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook Inc. in his Harvard dorm room, though the company is now located adjacent to Stanford in Menlo Park, California.

Startup Appeal

The possibility of working on Google Glass or at a startup appeals to young people, especially when compared with investment banking, said Alisha Seam, 23, who chose Stanford over Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for her undergraduate degree. After working at a surgical robotics startup, she is back at Stanford for a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Stanford pushes students to be innovative, she said.

“If you have an idea, you can make it happen,” Seam said, referring to her own experience as an undergrad teaching a class to medical students called Introduction to Biopharmaceutical Innovations.

The draw to Stanford isn’t technology alone, said Richard Shaw, dean of admissions. Some attributes, such as balmy weather and big-time sports, have always played into its appeal. More recently music, with the university’s new $112 million concert hall, as well as a revamped undergraduate curriculum this year, have added to its allure.

“It is a reflection of the willingness to ask questions of how we deliver,” Shaw said. “There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of innovation. It’s very forward thinking.”

Harvard Applications

Applications to Harvard, the oldest and richest school in the U.S., fell 2.1 percent from last year, compared with an 8.6 percent increase at Stanford. Even so, Harvard accepted only 5.9 percent of applicants for the next freshman class and remains one of the most selective colleges.

William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, wasn’t available to comment.

“Any selective college can increase its applicant pool significantly through more recruiting, especially the greater use of the Internet and direct mail through ‘search’ programs,” Harvard’s admission office said in February, referring to the practice of buying names from standardized test companies College Board and ACT Inc.

“Many colleges, Harvard included, choose not to do so, focusing instead on consistent targeted recruitment for those who have a realistic chance of being admitted,” Harvard said.

‘Dream School’

Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, accepted a record low 6.3 percent of applicants for the next freshman class, while Princeton University in New Jersey, accepted 7.28 percent, also a record low. Both schools are part of the Ivy League, a group of eight elite colleges in the northeastern U.S.

“Harvard had always been a dream school,” said Juan Castano, 19, whose family moved from Colombia to Miami when he was 7. He is currently winding up his freshman year there.

Castano was also accepted at Stanford, though his interest in government and politics made his choice simple, he said. He’s attended speeches at the college by the president of Colombia and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and he’s on a committee that is bringing the president of Ecuador to campus today.

“As someone who is thinking of concentrating in government, to have that real life experience, to see those individuals who are fundamental in politics and government, I thought was extremely, extremely useful,” Castano said. “I love it here.”

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