Paul Graham is a true polymath. He’s a leader in web technology with 15 years of high-profile accomplishments, one of which became the Yahoo! Store software that serves countless small businesses. He’s a well-known venture capitalist who funds startups via Y Combinator. In short, he’s an expert on most all things business and societal and how they can and do work with technology [and from what I understand, he's a fine artist as well].
It’s no surprise that Mr. Graham’s essay on the value of a college education has been widely-read and regarded as a sound, sensible contrarian take on one of the most important questions in education: Does it really matter where you go to college?
And this is, really, at the heart of the work I do. Much of my approach to higher education is echoed in Graham’s essay. It’s a broad topic and it’s a seminal topic; it’s difficult to address all the relevant facets of the question in less than a book.
Before writing a final copy of my take on if-and-how-much a particular college matters, I want to parse Graham’s essay and work through a discussion on this site and others. Too often we read give-and-take final products without knowing how one arrived at that end; it’s rare that readers can contrast the thought processes of two very different perspectives.
Graham does an excellent job giving context to his thoughts and describing well the hows and whys of his argument. I wanted to treat my reaction as a conversation and have responded to his points as if we were across a table discussing the matter [and Mr. Graham, why don't we do just that?].
Here’s Part I of “Yes and No.” I’ve decided to split this up into two parts because: a) there are too many points to address otherwise – the discussion would be stifled; and b) between quoting parts of Mr. Graham’s essay and adding my own comments, it works out to around 4,000+ words – that’s too much for one sitting.
I recommend reading Graham’s full text [~1,900 words] before proceeding, but it isn’t entirely necessary because I quote his piece liberally.
A few weeks ago I had a thought so heretical that it really surprised me. It may not matter all that much where you go to college.
For me, as for a lot of middle class kids, getting into a good college was more or less the meaning of life when I was growing up. What was I? A student. To do that well meant to get good grades. Why did one have to get good grades? To get into a good college. And why did one want to do that? There seemed to be several reasons: you’d learn more, get better jobs, make more money. But it didn’t matter exactly what the benefits would be. College was a bottleneck through which all your future prospects passed; everything would be better if you went to a better college.
Heretical to the average college graduate and to the fear-mongering New York Times, yes – but there are plenty of educators, public and private, who don’t assign value to a degree alone. The benefits of a solid post-secondary education are one thing that most all of us agree on: knowing more and using that knowledge in work and beyond.
What first set me thinking about this was the new trend of worrying obsessively about what kindergarten your kids go to. It seemed to me this couldn’t possibly matter. Either it won’t help your kid get into Harvard, or if it does, getting into Harvard won’t mean much anymore. And then I thought: how much does it mean even now?
I can’t empathize with those parents or kids who worry about college for 13+ years before they even set foot in a lecture hall [for many reasons beyond the scope of this article]. But getting into Harvard or an Ivy means less than it used to mean – I’d like to see where Graham is going with this.
It turns out I have a lot of data about that. My three partners and I run a seed stage investment firm called Y Combinator. We invest when the company is just a couple guys and an idea. The idea doesn’t matter much; it will change anyway. Most of our decision is based on the founders. The average founder is three years out of college. Many have just graduated; a few are still in school. So we’re in much the same position as a graduate program, or a company hiring people right out of college. Except our choices are immediately and visibly tested. There are two possible outcomes for a startup: success or failureâ€”and usually you know within a year which it will be.
The test applied to a startup is among the purest of real world tests. A startup succeeds or fails depending almost entirely on the efforts of the founders. Success is decided by the market: you only succeed if users like what you’ve built. And users don’t care where you went to college.
And here is the rich explanation of Graham’s perspective. It’s important to note that he’s in a relatively unique position; there are few sectors that rely routinely – and so wholly – on such measurable results, and describing a startup as “among the purest of real world tests” is quite appropriate. As Boris Johnson pointed out weeks ago, the market is often as pure a decider as we can find. Rightly or wrongly, it’s reality.
As well as having precisely measurable results, we have a lot of them. Instead of doing a small number of large deals like a traditional venture capital fund, we do a large number of small ones. We currently fund about 40 companies a year, selected from about 900 applications representing a total of about 2000 people.
Between the volume of people we judge and the rapid, unequivocal test that’s applied to our choices, Y Combinator has been an unprecedented opportunity for learning how to pick winners. One of the most surprising things we’ve learned is how little it matters where people went to college.
I thought I’d already been cured of caring about that. There’s nothing like going to grad school at Harvard to cure you of any illusions you might have about the average Harvard undergrad. And yet Y Combinator showed us we were still overestimating people who’d been to elite colleges. We’d interview people from MIT or Harvard or Stanford and sometimes find ourselves thinking: they must be smarter than they seem. It took us a few iterations to learn to trust our senses.
Harvard undergrads – and undergrads at any elite school – are people. There’s generally the same standard distribution as anywhere else, just shifted to the right a bit. There are hideously intelligent students, the how-on-earth-did-you-get-in students and everything in between.
I remember having lunch with a Harvard student who was nearing graduation with a concentration in American Literature [I forgot her actual track, but her thesis was on Am. Lit.]. She was accepted to Teach for America and would start training that summer. At one point I brought up James Fenimore Cooper – America’s first real, popular novelist – and she said, “Who’s that?” The last drips and drops of elite-school illusions were wiped clean.
Graham has made clear that simply going to Harvard, MIT, Stanford and the rest isn’t in itself good enough, but he hasn’t yet explained why.
Practically everyone thinks that someone who went to MIT or Harvard or Stanford must be smart. Even people who hate you for it believe it.
Agreed, but they hate you even more when they mention their alma mater, degree program or certification in a field and you react with almost total disinterest.
But when you think about what it means to have gone to an elite college, how could this be true? We’re talking about a decision made by admissions officersâ€”basically, HR peopleâ€”based on a cursory examination of a huge pile of depressingly similar applications submitted by seventeen year olds. And what do they have to go on? An easily gamed standardized test; a short essay telling you what the kid thinks you want to hear; an interview with a random alum; a high school record that’s largely an index of obedience. Who would rely on such a test?
It’s important to note at this point that the subject is getting broader. There’s a distinction between undergraduate programs and graduate programs and my answer to “Does it matter?” is quite different with the two.
Graham is oversimplifying the admissions process or, more accurately, describes a bad one. If an admissions officer relies too heavily on the easily gamed SAT/ACT, he’s evaluating candidates sub-optimally. If he can’t see through an insincere admissions essay, he’s not a terribly keen evaluator. If the alumni interview network is “random,” that’s not an effective use of the interview network. And, yes, high school GPA is generally a measure of duty and discipline.
Graham ignores the context that is woven with an application; separating its parts which, in and of themselves, are only indicators of an applicant’s abilities or performance, does a disservice to this topic. If HR or an admissions committee breaks apart this data to evaluate it, they’re not pulling the best of the applicant pool.
But this is how HR and admissions committees generally function. Admissions committees especially are hampered by logistics; it’s common knowledge that a pool of 20,000 applications allows for under 10 minutes of analysis for each applicant, qualified or not.
HR is generally populated with people who have worked in HR – they may or may not have enough knowledge and experience with certain aspects of the corporation to hire optimally. Admissions officers are from a similar pool – they’re often former students with little experience beyond the university, with senior officers’ CVs populated mostly by service to that school or others.
I’ve argued in the past that direct experience and credentialism aren’t foolproof measures of one’s abilities, but there’s no question that those who have experience generally are in a better position to evaluate candidates, policies, practices, etc. Some have a Blink-like talent for quick, accurate evaluation while others are largely clueless, experience or not.
In short, if HR or admissions rely on a school’s reputation or a degree track’s prestige, they’re playing it safe. They won’t accept too many stinkers, but they’ll miss out on a ton of talent.
And yet a lot of companies do [rely too much on these measures]. A lot of companies are very much influenced by where applicants went to college. How could they be? I think I know the answer to that.
There used to be a saying in the corporate world: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” You no longer hear this about IBM specifically, but the idea is very much alive; there is a whole category of “enterprise” software companies that exist to take advantage of it. People buying technology for large organizations don’t care if they pay a fortune for mediocre software. It’s not their money. They just want to buy from a supplier who seems safeâ€”a company with an established name, confident salesmen, impressive offices, and software that conforms to all the current fashions. Not necessarily a company that will deliver so much as one that, if they do let you down, will still seem to have been a prudent choice. So companies have evolved to fill that niche.
I jumped the gun with my last comment – Graham agrees that safety is the issue.
Hiring and admissions based on credentials is a matter of probability – and it’s difficult to fault a company or committee for going with the odds. With education, K-12 or beyond, there are a few important factors that determine a program’s value:
- Instructor quality. The quality of professors and staff matter. The more impressive a faculty’s accomplishments and the more authority they hold in the relevant disciplines, the more a student is likely to benefit.
- Resources. Better schools tend to have more resources – including money. Those resources lure the most talented researchers and professors.
- Higher-quality peers. Better schools have, on average, more talented and accomplished peers. There’s plenty of research to show that at all levels of education, students perform/advance more effectively and efficiently when they’re surrounded with quality. If you want a simple example, consider the differences in a class discussion on literature comparing highly-literate, knowledgeable students to a class barely able to understand the text. One scenario clearly provides more valuable, insightful discussion than the other.
Schools such as the Ivies historically have had – and continue to have – these three important elements. When HR or admissions has to consider a candidate in under 10 minutes, they rely to some degree on these reputations. One would often lose if he argued constantly that these schools don’t expose the average student to high-quality instruction, surround them with talented students or make available adequate resources to make the most of one’s study.
A recruiter at a big company is in much the same position as someone buying technology for one. If someone went to Stanford and is not obviously insane, they’re probably a safe bet. And a safe bet is enough. No one ever measures recruiters by the later performance of people they turn down.
Yes, and that’s partly because it’s impossible to measure that type of opportunity cost.
Hiring/admissions based on credentials provides a safety net for judgment; it nearly ensures that the most basic standards are met. But I would argue that this performance is measured. We can’t do it with easily-gathered hard data, but HR/admissions that engage in optimal selection fare better in their respective sectors. Companies are more profitable and more productive, schools pump out graduates who lead their respective fields.
Does this mean that the most successful schools and the most successful companies go beyond simple reputations with acceptance? It would be nearly impossible to isolate that factor, but I’d say absolutely. Such rigidity can keep an institution from decline, but it won’t advance it optimally.
Part II will address the next section of Paul Graham’s essay.
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