Why TV’s Brainiest Characters are Still Obsessed With Harvard

Prom Pact on Disney Channel, Disney Plus
(Image credit: Disney )

The movie Prom Pact, about high school students fretting about the prom, debuted on Disney Channel March 30, and starts on Disney Plus March 31. The main character, Mandy, for her part, thinks more about getting into Harvard than going to the prom. 

If you think you’ve seen a main character obsessed with going to Harvard before, you probably have. Rory from Gilmore Girls spoke endlessly of getting into Harvard, often from a bedroom decked out in Harvard posters. Her frenemy at Chilton Preparatory School, Paris, was perhaps even more obsessed with Harvard. In Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods sees getting into Harvard Law as the only way to win back boyfriend Warner. 

Other Harvard grads in the scripted TV world include Rebecca from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island, Miranda from Sex and the City and Frasier Crane from Cheers and Frasier

Back in 2018, the Harvard Crimson wrote in “Hollywood’s Harvard Problem,” (opens in new tab) “Viewers find movies and shows infused with the Harvard brand name so compelling because a character’s ability to attend Harvard marks them as having a superhuman affinity for rising above their circumstances. Elle Woods graduates at the top of her class, and viewers rejoice because she’s intellectually surpassed the ex-boyfriend for which she was much too good. Though she ends up choosing Yale, Rory Gilmore is accepted to Harvard, fulfilling a lifelong dream after overcoming a pitiable start at an academically rigorous private school. More importantly, both do so relatively unscathed. Rory and Elle both struggle, but their Harvard storylines culminate with them giving graduation speeches to their classmates.”

While Harvard serves as a shorthand for the best of the best in education, and a character who’s scary-smart, one wonders if some other colleges deserve to be obsessed over by these aspiring characters. Like Stanford, or Yale, or perhaps even a respectable state school. US News & World Report, for its part, had Princeton at No. 1 in 2022-2023 and MIT at No. 2, with Harvard, Stanford and Yale tied for No. 3. 

I’ve seen a few articles about how high school students are not as obsessed with top-notch, and very expensive, colleges as they used to be. The so-called Varsity Blues scandal, which saw wealthy people, some of them famous (Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin), bend and break the rules to get their children into elite schools, turned some students off the Herculean efforts to get into the most prestigious colleges. Others see it as not worth the exorbitant tuition. 

“This generation–Generation Z, Generation Alpha–has been discouraged from higher education being the be-all and end-all,” said Linda Ong, founder and CEO of consulting firm Cultique. 

High schoolers are less interested in college in general. Undergraduate enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, reported PBS NewsHour. “At worst, it could signal a new generation with little faith in the value of a college degree,” it said. “At minimum, it appears those who passed on college during the pandemic are opting out for good. Predictions that they would enroll after a year or two haven’t borne out.”

Julie Bowen, an executive producer on Prom Pact, said the producers got a note from Disney during development, saying, why Harvard, why does Harvard matter? Bowen, who played Claire on Modern Family, said Mandy’s dream is to learn from a specific professor who is based on a Harvard one, but who has been fictionalized to make it more “Disney friendly” and legally sound. “There are these wonderful professors and wonderful programs you can only access at certain schools,” said Bowen, herself a Brown grad. “This happens to be one that is at Harvard. That is the Why Harvard? of it all.”

Mandy, who is played by Peyton Elizabeth Lee, explains to her guidance counselor why she’s obsessed with Harvard: “Because Harvard is the best school in the world. And Harvard is where my hero, development economist, Dr. Ingrid Downs, went. And Harvard is where she is a tenured professor.”

Mandy added that Dr. Downs “mentors young women like me who want to change the world for the better.”

Bowen said Harvard continues to be an effective shorthand for screenwriters and producers. “Harvard still stands for something worldwide,” she said. “It’s a brand name that people strive for. When you’re trying to shortcut that kind of excellence, it’s a great brand name to use.”

Alas, Mandy finds out she’s on the waiting list at Harvard. “It’s over,” she said to Ben, played by Milo Manheim. “Harvard, Dr. Downs, saving the world, my life–it’s over.”

She added, “Harvard was supposed to be the place. My place!”

Mandy crashes into her guidance counselor’s office to tell her she’s on the waiting list. 

“Maybe it’s finally time to start to discuss backup schools,” the counselor, played by Margaret Cho, said.

But Mandy’s not hearing it. She devises an elaborate scheme that involves tutoring the star athlete and heartthrob in her grade, who’s father is a senator, and Harvard grad. 

Does it work? Does Mandy get in?

You have to watch Prom Pact to find out. ■

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.