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Dangerous Ideas: Sorry Paul Graham, I Think it Does Matter Where You Went to College

[UPDATE 9/7/07: Welcome new readers. Before continuing, I want to point out that the “Dangerous Ideas” series on this blog aim to be purposefully over the top. The idea is to push an argument to its extreme to generate interesting discussion. So take what follows with a grain of salt]

[UPDATE 9/7/07: I fixed two quotes in the text below (keeping the original misquote in place, but now crossed out). I quoted Paul as saying doing well academically demonstrates “obedience to authority.” The actual quote was that doing well is an “index of obedience.” In another place, I had the quote “an ability to do things to please adults.” The real quote was “knows what it takes to please the adults.” I take accuracy seriously. Sorry for the sloppiness in the previous draft.]  

Paul Graham recently posted an essay on the role of college in determining success. True to Paul’s history, the piece is provocative and yields a good read.

His thesis:

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.

He begins by presenting evidence — from his seed stage investment vehicle, Y Combinator — that the college attended by the entrepreneurs he funds doesn’t seem to affect whether or not their startups succeed.

This is not hard to believe. A cool little tidbit from a unique dataset.

But then he continues. Paul generalizes this local argument to the much larger claim that the reputation of your college means nothing. In his words, attending “MIT, Harvard, or Stanford” does not mean that you are unusually smart or talented.

Indeed, according to Paul’s theory, going to an elite school, and/or doing well at college in general, is indicative only of an “obedience to authority” “obedience” and an ability “to do things that please adults” knowing what it “takes to please the adults.” He claims companies selectively hire from elite schools only because this obedience makes people easier to control. There are no other positive traits attributable to students who stand out at top institutions.

Yeah right!

I hear variations of this same tired argument probably once or twice a month. (It comes with the territory when you write a book titled How to Become a Straight-A Student). To my frequent frustration, there seems to be no quicker way to rouse knee-jerk support than to put down college or getting good grades.

But why is this? Are grades really unimportant? Does academic success only really require that you be a conformist and jump through hoops? Does it not require actual ability? Is it not something indicative of talent, and motivation, and curiosity?

Here’s my take:

  • You don’t have to attend an elite college, or even do well at college, to succeed. Duh. Everyone knows this. No one disputes this. Case in point: Bill Gates, Richard Branson, every musician ever…


  • Students who get into elite colleges tend to be, on the whole, talented. For an unrelated project, I recently spent some time hanging out in the MIT admissions office. These guys aren’t fooled by the study robots. They have developed, instead, an incredible eye, not just for true intellectual horsepower, but also for curiosity and a brash sense of ambition. This stuff comes through in the applications (often sublimated from the teacher recommendations, which, with a bit of practice, can be incredibly revealing regarding the real story of a student).
  • Diligence and obedience do not generate high grades. Sorry Mr. Entrepreneur. You didn’t get a “C” in English Lit because you’re a non-conformist who is too creative to be held down by the teacher’s “rules.” Either you were too disorganized to handle the mentally-taxing workload, or, you just didn’t care, or, worse, the material was just too much for you. Fine. This is your choice. Whatever the reason, however, don’t put down the kids that got the A’s. They didn’t get there because of obedience to authority. They got there because they’re on the ball. They can process multiple streams of information, and they have trained their mind to think hard, produce subtle, nuanced arguments, and find deep connections between ideas — all traits, ironically, that most entrepreneurs would say are important.
  • There is rarely a difference between learning and grades in the college classroom. A common argument I hear from students: “I was there to learn, not to chase after a meaningless external reward like grades.” Here’s the reality: in most classes, the higher your grade the better you learned the material. The student who got an ‘A’ on her Kant essay is, quite simply, someone who really understands Kant. Ditto for the student who aced the math exam. He understands the techniques better than the kid with the ‘B-‘. The idea that you can be learning but still doing poorly, is, at least in the classes I have attended, often a canard. Give the ‘A’ student his due. He mastered the material better than the ‘C’ student.

My Bottom Line

It’s fine to make the point that college and grades aren’t everything. In fact it’s important. Some talented students can’t attend an elite school due to finances. Some talented young people just aren’t into schoolwork — and we shouldn’t discourage them from still tackling life with everything they’ve got. They have a fine chance of coming out ahead. I’ll be the first say it: College is not necessary for success!

So you don’t need to get A’s at Harvard to do well in life. Fine. This doesn’t mean, however, that getting A’s at Harvard is meaningless. In all likelihood, that A student is probably smart, and talented, and curious, and sharp. And both her record and the school she attends indicates that she has her act together and can tackle complicated, intellectually-demanding tasks.

Let us not then, Paul, put her down. She too, just as much as any homegrown entrepreneur, has worked hard and made use of her talents. It does matter where she got into school and what she did once there. Let’s not take this from her. No matter how good that might make us feel. Just because we didn’t take a particular path should not motivate us to knock down those who did.

33 thoughts on “Dangerous Ideas: Sorry Paul Graham, I Think it Does Matter Where You Went to College”

  1. Good to hear the other side.

    But I think you’re far too generous to the straight A-er.

    “Students who get into elite colleges tend to be, on the whole, talented.” – I agree. But this doesn’t mean it’s worth the costs to get into that elite college.

    “Diligence and obedience do not generate high grades.” I disagree.

    “They got there because they’re on the ball. They can process multiple streams of information, and they have trained their mind to think hard, produce subtle, nuanced arguments, and find deep connections between ideas — all traits, ironically, that most entrepreneurs would say are important.” – Perhaps. But these “traits” are very context specific — specific to the context of school!

  2. I’m all with Paul Graham on this one. Even if I started my studies in a little university (I can actually remember one teacher of the most prestigious french university laughing at me when I said where I came from…), I’m now “part of the elite” (as pursuing my MSc in a first-class uni), like a lot of friends of mine. I really think that motivation and dedication to work are far more important…

  3. I’m also with Paul. Becoming educated is a personal experience. And being good at the education system is its own unique skill. It’s a common misconception, similar to how good cooks open a restaurant and wonder why the restaurant fails. It’s because running a restaurant is its own skill. Being a good chef helps but is, in a sense, not very relavent. Do you see? Someone can write a great paper on Kant and yet not understand the concepts very deeply.

    I would never put down someone who got straight A’s at a good school. That’s a wonderful accomplishment. I would also hold it fairly irrelavent to a hiring decision, for example. And I think that’s what Paul is saying.

  4. I think Paul Graham is arguing that if you took that same “A” Harvard student and sent her to public college, she’d do just as well. He’s also arguing that college admissions can be manipulated (hence the test preparation industry). Combining those two ideas leads to the concept that not all people who get into Harvard are great, and not all people who don’t aren’t. I would further argue that getting into a good college is only the beginning of your success as an adult, if you do nothing else after that, you’re still unsuccessful.

  5. There is a world of difference between the questions that are thought out by someone else (the teacher), for the purpose of measuring someone other’s (the student’s) understading of a subject, and the questions that someone (the enterpreneur) has to first figure out are meaningful and then answer him/herself.

    At most, the student makes a choice of which questions are asked by cherry-picking courses — that’s like a ready-made product, with some optional features. The enterpreneur does not have that luxury, instead the choice of questions to answer (or targets to accomplish) changes all the time.

    So, while the mechanism of achieving a goal is quite similar between these two groups of people, the student has much less burden in choosing the goals.

  6. Sorry Mr. Entrepreneur. You didn’t get a “C” in English Lit because you’re a non-conformist who is too creative to be held down by the teacher’s “rules.”

    I can’t believe you picked English Lit for the example. In my memory, that was precisely the class where conformance with the teacher’s viewpoint was most rewarded. Fortunately, I learned quickly that in the less objective subjects (English, ethics, etc.) that an attempt to argue for a point opposite the teacher’s political/philosophical bent would be punished with a C. Blindly parroting back the teacher’s view (or what you could guess the teacher’s view would be) made getting an A effortless. (Of all the English teachers/professors I ever had, only one respected students whom took opposing viewpoints.)

    More broadly, I think you’re mischaracterizing Paul’s essay. I don’t think he was slamming kids who go to elite schools as untalented. He was just pointing out that, in the particular case of startups, the market doesn’t care where you went to school, or if you went to school. It cares only if you can build something that people will pay for. The same is not necessarily true of knowledge-worker corporate environments, where reputation (rightly or wrongly deserved) serves as an approximation of value.

  7. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I’m more with you, Cal.

    I’ve known some incredibly brilliant people who did very poorly in school. It was because they were lazy.
    I haven’t seen it for sure, but I expect that their laziness will appear to some extent in their work as well.

    I have only had a couple of years of community college so far, and I have to attest that I don’t feel that I learned a lot from the curriculum of most of the classes that I took. But I did in a few classes, for example, my pre-calc class.

    Out of 18 students, 12 dropped and 3 failed. I was the only A student by the end of it. All 3 of the guys that failed were smart enough to get an A. It was a lot of work and I had to learn a lot, but I made the effort and they didn’t.

  8. I agree with you more than I do with Paul.

    Given a random “A” student from MIT and a “C” student from the local community college, who would you hire if you’re starting a tech company (the industry that Paul Graham is in)? If you had nothing else to go on, you’d pick the MIT grad, right?

    However, I think that part of Paul’s point is that your college shouldn’t be the only criteria or a way to filter someone out. Paul does take it too far to say that the college you go to doesn’t matter. What I’ve found in the 15 years I’ve worked in the industry is that those who were better students did tend to be more productive at work, and isn’t that what we’re ultimately looking for when we look at a person’s resume? It’s far from 100% predictive, but the trend is more meaningful than Paul implies.

  9. What I gathered from Paul Graham’s essay was that the educational system is more easily hacked than the free market. And for that reason, your success in the free market has no meaningful correlation to your success in the education system, particularly if success is marked by succeeding as an entrepreneur.

    That said, I agree that it would be wrong to put down someone who has succeeded in the educational system. It is a high achievement. I’ve managed to crawl out from under the rock of middling high school grades to a prestigious CS graduate program, and it has taken a lot of work along the way. Someday I hope to tackle the brand of success Paul Graham talks about.

  10. Alternatively, it means that the kid who got the B spent five hours on the essay because he was busy working 30 hours a week while going to school and was taking out student loans to live in an apartment 20 miles away, commuting an hour between work and school and home. The kid with the A had parents who were wealthy, worked an internship at a parent’s business partner’s firm in the summers for a little extra spending money, and lived on campus.

    I lived 45 minutes to campus. I’ll tell you, it makes a difference when you have a test at 8AM. They’re reading their notes over for the ten minutes it takes to walk to class while I’m driving and avoiding traffic, trying to look at things at red lights.

    I can show similar issues with grades and high school.

  11. Great discussion.

    If I had to rewrite my essay, I would probably just reduce it down to a few bullet points:

    (1) You don’t have to succeed academically to succeed in life.

    (2) Some people who succeed academically do so in an underhanded manner (cherry-pick classes, suck-up, complain, drop courses before getting a bad grade); and aren’t really that talented.

    (3) Most people, however, that get into a good school, and then do well once there, are probably talented and have demonstrated skills that are useful in many real world contexts. Therefore, we should be careful not to let our zealousness about (1) and (2) lead us to forget (3), and discount any merit this path.

  12. I find it downright stunning that not one person has suggested that going to a hugely expensive elite university can actually make you smarter. You know, by teaching you stuff. It’s all about how elite admissions processes are good at spotting innately talented people.

    I don’t disagree with this view, I’m just surprised that no one even mentions teaching and learning, which was supposed to be the purpose of universities, once upon a time. I guess we’ve all given up on that.

  13. You are spot on. It’s funny to see many of those above disagree with you without any logic.

    Someone who went to Harvard who was now transferred to a public school is still not as likely to succeed. Humans are creatures of comparison and we compare ourselves to our peers. If you’re surrounded with average people and you’re smart, you’ll be happy being who you are. If you’re surrounded by geniuses, you’ll work your butt off to excel.

    It’s funny how Paul Graham, the daddy of bullshit and spin, purports himself to be so smart and yet contradicts himself on numerous occasions.

    On the one hand, he says that as an engineer, you have to be in the Bay Area to duke it out with the best. On the other hand, he claims it doesn’t matter where you go to college. Hmmm. Wouldn’t you want to be surrounded by the best? Clearly despite attending Harvard, Paul Graham failed to understand logic.

  14. Could it be, perhaps, that future leaders have personalities that don’t work that great with school? I.e., they’re really only into certain things and not good at others, or need real motivation and meaning to work?

    It’s like Catholic vs. Protestant ethic in sociology — some people feel they have a calling and get depressed if what they’re doing is inconsistent with who they are, while others feel like just working really really hard is the most important thing.

    Or it’s like leaders vs. managers in business. Leaders are revolutionary but also often emotional and unstable. Also, many, many of them fail. Managers are consistent but hardly have revolutionary ideas.

    In my opinion, many many straight-A students are good managers / protestant ethic, and many people who you see that are outspoken and really good at some things but not others are leaders / catholic ethic. Of course, both are necessary for a well-functioning society or organization, and it’s never fully either/or.

    Of the top 5 students from my high school, 3 are doctors and the other 2 are PhDs. No offense but they’re kinda boring people. Yet of others in my high school class who were nowhere near the top 5, one has a multimillion dollar startup, another just got a main role in a TV series, and another — after winning an acclaimed international book prize while an undergraduate in Kentucky — strolled into Yale grad school to join some of the people whose grades had far exceeded hers in high school (including myself, who felt sheepish in her presence). At a recent reunion no one was interested in the top 5 students anymore.

    Another thing I noticed at Yale was that at graduation, many of the grad students who won departmental awards had NOT attended prestigious undergraduate institutions. Granted, most other grad students had. A friend of mine who had interviewed people for the admissions committee in our department said that there was a list of 20 or so prestigious schools, and students from these lists received extra admission “points”. Those from non-prestigious schools had to be really, really good or had to have done something extra-special to get in. And no wonder, because they left us all in the dust when they got here.

    You think about all the past presidents who went to state schools or small colleges as undergrads before going to Harvard and Yale (Bush doesn’t count), or think about people like the Google founders who attended Michigan and Maryland before attending Stanford, and think how much better than them ivy league undergrads must have felt at the time…

    P.S. Sorry for the essay length.

  15. Slightly off-topic but just as an fyi many ivy league schools suffer from extreme grade inflation – once you’re in, it’s easy sailing. I’m a fourth year at Harvard and making A’s here is really no challenge at all and I’m not super smart either.

  16. To post #18: This completely contradicts my experience. I’m willing to buy that this is true in some fields, but coursework in many of, and perhaps the majority of the departments is rigorous and demanding. You have to be quite disciplined to sustain an A average in, for example, Chemistry, or (despite the silly name) Social Studies.

    But if you’ve managed a 4.0 without breaking a sweat, good for you! What’s your secret?

  17. Diligence and obedience do not generate high grades

    well, being a graduate of both US and foreign Universitites, my experience indicates that while SOME students with high grades have indeed a better understanding of the course material, it is far more common to see that students with the best grades are the ones that have successfully determined what the instructor expects, and then meets the instructor’s expectations to a high degree. In other words, many, if not most, of the “best” students are “best” at analyzing a given situation and determining how to produce a desired result. And afterall, isn’t this really what “success” is about?

    If we accept this explanation, then we have a simple explanation for cheating by some, and sometimes by many, students in a course. A mini-scandal ensued at one universtity that I attended in which a a large proportion of the students were determined to have cheated on a final examination. We students at this university were considered “the best-of-the-best” in the country, so how could there possible be any reason to cheat if it is true that

    They got there because they’re on the ball. They can process multiple streams of information, and they have trained their mind to think hard, produce subtle, nuanced arguments, and find deep connections between ideas — all traits, ironically, that most entrepreneurs would say are important.

    I maintain that MANY, if not most, “got there” because they learned to “play the game”. But perhaps successfully “playing the game” is a side effect of having some of the qualitites espoused in the above quotation.

  18. Sorry Mr. Entrepreneur. You didn’t get a “C” in English Lit because you’re a non-conformist who is too creative to be held down by the teacher’s “rules.” Either you were too disorganized to handle the mentally-taxing workload, or, you just didn’t care, or, worse, the material was just too much for you.

    Interesting you should use that example. I failed 12th grade English.Not because I was disorganized, felt mentally taxed, didn’t care, or was over-burdened. In fact, I got A’s on all of my assignments. No, I failed because the teacher didn’t like that I disagreed with teaching style, his philosophy, and his chosen subject matter. All my classmates were shocked. I went to the head school counselor (dean), and he said that in the end the teacher doesn’t need to give me a grade based on my performance on tasks, but on his opinion.

    I am the non-conformist “Mr. Entrepreneur”, I work hard and smart, and those who know me wonder at my workload, and how I come up and am able to execute so many ideas.

    Good thing I didn’t rack up debt by going to college, otherwise I would have to take that corporate job, and conform like the rest.

  19. i must tell that in some countries it really doesn’t matter where you go to college , because most of the places for the students are taken by people who have connections.

  20. A lot of peoples that are in top $ i dont think they’ve gone to college when they had too , so what i want to say is that in some cases matters in some not.

  21. Based on the sheer numbers, grade inflation at the top universities is rampant. There are a lot of factors outside of pure talent that you are not considering. These people are used to, and know how to, put pressure on professors for example. And you overestimate the utility of college evaluation methods. Outside of hard math and science, and I’ve heard from grad students that it’s sometimes true even there, there are no purely objective measurement tools for someone’s talent.


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