Does It Matter Where You Go To College? Yes and No, Part II

Ivory Tower vs. Plaster of Paris Tower

This is a continuation of Part I, a reaction to Paul Graham’s essay on the value of a top-tier degree.

Picking up where we left off:

I’m not saying, of course, that elite colleges have evolved to prey upon the weaknesses of large organizations the way enterprise software companies have. But they work as if they had. In addition to the power of the brand name, graduates of elite colleges have two critical qualities that plug right into the way large organizations work. They’re good at doing what they’re asked, since that’s what it takes to please the adults who judge you at seventeen. And having been to an elite college makes them more confident.

I’m not certain that graduates of elite colleges are any more controllable than graduates from a third-tier school. A cynic could suggest that to be accepted to an elite school and complete a degree requires extra commitment to diligence and obedience, but there’s no evidence to support that. In contrast, some elite institutions are quite easy on their students – after all, if they’re accepted to _____ they must be brilliant and the reins are loosened.

Students are increasingly treated as consumers who direct their own education rather than lucky souls who are given a wonderful opportunity to work the will of the grisly gang in the Ivory Tower. Suggesting that success at such a school is largely a result of committing to the party line is a baseless oversimplification of higher education.

And, yes, graduating from an elite college gives one confidence because, on average, they’re far better prepared than fourth-tier graduates. That confidence is justified.

Back in the days when people might spend their whole career at one big company, these qualities must have been very valuable. Graduates of elite colleges would have been capable, yet amenable to authority. And since individual performance is so hard to measure in large organizations, their own confidence would have been the starting point for their reputation.

I would argue that responsible diligence and obedience, along with appropriate confidence in one’s abilities, are still valuable. If I were a university president, I’d hate to pump out graduates who were missing any of those qualities.

I’m a bit confused here with Graham’s logic – he bemoans a worker who is ‘amenable to authority,’ then discounts using that worker’s own judgment [his confidence] to evaluate performance. If he doesn’t listen to his boss and his self-evaluation isn’t accurate, who’s steering his ship?

Things are very different in the new world of startups. We couldn’t save someone from the market’s judgement [sic] even if we wanted to. And being charming and confident counts for nothing with users. All users care about is whether you make something they like. If you don’t, you’re dead.

The market is an excellent judge of the product – the market doesn’t judge the process. But we need a process to get a product.

I have a feeling that Graham is saying that the obedience with process is less important than in the past. Cherry-picking elements of process and product to prove the point is intellectually irresponsible. Users of don’t care about the charm and confidence exhibited by the minds behind the website [product], but that doesn’t mean that those attributes aren’t important to the process that resulted in the service.

Knowing that test is coming makes us work a lot harder to get the right answers than anyone would if they were merely hiring people. We can’t afford to have any illusions about the predictors of success. And what we’ve found is that the variation between schools is so much smaller than the variation between individuals that it’s negligible by comparison. We can learn more about someone in the first minute of talking to them than by knowing where they went to school.

Essentially, Graham is advocating a streamlined process that focuses on delivering a valuable result. This isn’t new; it’s not only good business, it’s likely a major reason why Graham’s ventures [and those he's funded] have largely been successful. It’s how we all need to work.

Graham touches on the point of variation – and that really should be the meat of his argument.

50 years ago, there were marked differences between an Ivy and, for example, the average state agricultural college. That gap has been closed by an intellectual flattening, broadening and the expansion of higher education.

Consider the following points:

Narrow to broad curricula. Generations ago, even larger universities didn’t offer 1,000 different degree programs and an overwhelming array of classes. A degree from a solid institution certified a body of knowledge not only because of a school’s reputation for quality, but also because there were few opportunities to stray significantly from that prescribed body of knowledge. Human Resources at a given company knew that a degree in business from a reputable institution certified mastery of the principles of business as well as familiarity with all elements of a liberal arts education and the basic skills it cultivates.

Now, a student graduating from a college or university generally has anywhere from 1/4 – 1/2 their curriculum mandated [with obvious variations depending on one's track] – a paltry portion compared to the prescribed curricula of yesteryear. The important point is that standard curricula have ceased to dominate higher education; we simply can’t view a degree as a certification of knowledge or abilities because of this variation.

I attended Boston University – it’s a very large research university with plenty of funding. I made sure that I studied with the best – Nobel Laureates, authorities in respective fields, etc. – but I didn’t have to. I could have taken 18+ of my 32 classes in everything from ballet studies to coaching theory and, in the end, I would’ve had exactly the same degree as I have now. Unless someone analyzed my transcript, they wouldn’t have any idea what knowledge I possessed beyond what was required to satisfy the minimum liberal arts requirement and the necessary classes for my major.

In 1908, HR didn’t have to wonder whether a Harvard graduate chose to take rhetoric or basketweaving.

Expansion of higher education. The last 40 years has seen an explosion in higher ed, from state research universities to small liberal arts colleges to a vast network of community colleges. There’s simply more to choose from [as well as the curricular expansion I just noted].

Not all of these options are created equal, but this proliferation has nearly eliminated the monopoly excellent education that was held by the Ivies and its counterparts west of the Mississippi. The emergence of other viable options has diminished the certainty with which we regard a particular degree’s value. It’s not just the Ivies anymore.

And the student population has exploded, too. As colleges and universities expand – offering an education to far larger student bodies than in the past – our ability to assign characteristics to individuals who graduate from a particular institution diminishes. The larger a population, the more difficult it is to generalize accurately.

There are several other important factors that contribute to a flattening of reputations that are beyond the scope of this article – the two points above are meant only to be a conceptual start.

And can we know more by talking to someone for a minute than evaluating their degree? Now, usually we can – generations ago, not necessarily, as there were far fewer criteria associated with their certifications. I think Graham would agree that at this point, anyone who attempts to evaluate one based solely on credentials is hiring/admitting sub-optimally. The consequences of this shift on both HR and academics are numerous and marked.

It seems obvious when you put it that way. Look at the individual, not where they went to college. But that’s a weaker statement than the idea I began with, that it doesn’t matter much where a given individual goes to college. Don’t you learn things at the best schools that you wouldn’t learn at lesser places?

This depends a great deal on what one is measuring and the applicant’s course of study.

A liberal arts education – and really, any bachelors-level degree program – equips a student with the basic, transferable skills that are required for any pursuit. This proposition would offend most students, especially the ones who are passionate about their niche discipline, but undergraduate education is about rudimentary skills: reading, writing, thinking and communicating the results of those efforts. One acquires those skills, theoretically, in any discipline and uses them in any job they’ll ever have.

These skills, as I’ve said, are wholly transferable – I didn’t study business or education formally, but I’m competent in both sectors because I’ve mastered those basic skills. This is no different than the signaling methods a venture capitalist might use to identify potentially-successful entrepreneurs regardless of their specific credentials. Those transferable skills are taught properly at many institutions in many disciplines.

But some degree programs are more vocational than others. For example, a hard science researcher acquires not just transferable skills, but also methodology and practices specific to the performance of research in his discipline. Some schools/departments simply provide better training [for a variety of reasons such as availability of resources, partnerships, faculty quality, etc.]. In this case, you leave an elite school equipped with hard skills that you’d miss at a fourth-tier institution.

Graham’s business – entrepreneurship – depends more on transferable skills than on vocational skills. For his purposes, he can choose a graduate of Harvard or Hartwick with relative indifference if they’ve mastered the transferable skills necessary for successful entrepreneurship. HR for NASA’s research labs is more likely to base a decision on hard skills, or at least factor those vocational attributes more heavily.

Apparently not. Obviously you can’t prove this in the case of a single individual, but you can tell from aggregate evidence: you can’t, without asking them, distinguish people who went to one school from those who went to another three times as far down the US News list. Try it and see.

Again, Graham fails to delineate between transferable skills and vocational skills. If I ask two examinees to write a 750-word essay [not unlike a statement of purpose on an application] about why they want to go to law school, it would be virtually impossible to tell with any degree of certainty the examinee’s background – unless, of course, he described it in the essay.

If I ask two candidates for a fellowship about a particular facet of researching the effectiveness of g-protein coupled receptors and influential RGS proteins responsible for treating symptoms of epilepsy, I’m likely to take their answer and separate with confidence the University of Phoenix graduate from the MIT alum.

It’s the difference between transferable skill available at any quality institution and hard, vocational skill that may or may not be a part of a specific curriculum.

Part III will address the final points in Graham’s essay.


6 Responses to “Does It Matter Where You Go To College? Yes and No, Part II”

  1. Dana says:

    Interesting. I enjoy a bit of anti-institutional rhetoric now and again, but this is too much even for me (responding to Mr. Graham).

    I am a libertarian leaning conservative with very definite and very vocal views on a number of topics. I did not attend an elite college, but I did attend one noted for its liberality.

    So how do you explain my GPA and various honors conferred? If “doing what you’re asked” means showing up for class and turning assignments in on time, I do not see how that is a bad thing. I’m sorry employers like that sort of predictability in a worker.

    My former boss said the reason he preferred to hire college grads was because he knew that they could at least finish something they started.

  2. Mark says:

    Always great to read your opinion, Matthew. Your posts are thoughtful, comprehensive, and interesting to read. Thanks!

  3. Matthew, this may be a contrarian contribution, and I apologize if it’s off topic, but given the huge opportunities to learn and acquire information in this digital age, does an autodidact with a run-of-the-mill sheepskin have to take a back seat to an Ivy League grad? I kinda think not.

    What do you think.

    BTW, I know I’m treading in deep water here, because you’re the guy whose expertise is in “higher education, executive recruiting, consulting and government.” But I’m curious about your opinion on the matter. Bottom line…are Ivy League Schools reaching the end of their “cachet” period?

    Virtual mentors are out there. Can they take the place of face-to-face mentors?

  4. Forgot the question mark…

    “What do you think?”

  5. Benjamin Hernandez says:

    Currently, I am attending the University of Florida, an institution noted as one of the best, not only in the state, but in the nation as well. As a seventeen year old, I can completely understand and sympathize with Mr. Graham simplification of the admissions process, because, in all honesty, it’s exactly how he describes it. It’s just as cumulation of credentials, which you are judged upon; thus, the more credentials you have, the more you are of worth. However, credentials don’t always accurately depict the person, neither in personality nor in working habits. I was one of the best in my old high school and was accepted into the university, however, others that were much better than myself did not get in because they didn’t have all the credentials I did–be it community service or number of activities. This judgment on credentials immediately limited the university from receiving/accepting a much better student/s than I to attend this institution.

    Furthermore, the only reason I elected to come here was because it is renowned as one the best. I, like many other undergraduate students, yearn to come to an exceptional university where I know my dreams are more likely become reality. However, has coming here made me any more intelligent that going to the a less prestigious university? Has it truly instilled in me transferable skills that I can use in the job market? No, it has not. The only thing that I have gained here so far is the facade of being one of the best in the state–which is purely absurd. This is a notion that the university itself believe to be a fact. And for confidence, that’s a double edge sword. Because yes, you could have came from one of the best schools, but competing against other top students just reminds you of your inadequacies and your inability to go above your natural limitations.

    Although I wholeheartedly agree on several of your points of “yes” and “no”, I think that Mr.Graham has the right idea. Even though a larger more prestigious university has more resources, better faculty, and experts in their fields, like mentioned earlier, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will take advantage of any of the aforementioned. All they do is add more to your “prestige” but not to your assumed wealth of knowledge.

  6. I believe your right. I mean if J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College has the highest passing rate and is ranked high for its nursing program why would you go to George Mason or VCU. The playing field has been somewhat leveled


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