It may not matter all that much where you go to college

Paul Graham, the millionaire, Harvard graduate, Italy art school graduate, the same guy who wrote that Americans would keep the upper hand because all of the best professors are parked in a few small elite colleges instead of wasting their time all over the country teaching to lesser kids, the guy who has written that elite colleges were important because that is where the most brilliant kids meet up and create the best start-ups, the guy who wrote that keeping housing extremely expensive and refusing to tax the rich was key to producing innovation, well, this guy had revelation last week:

It may not matter all that much where you go to college.


And he had this revelation because, time and time again, when recruiting kids for his start-up incubator, he found out that kids who graduated from MIT, Stanford or Harvard were not smarter.

How he explains it is great too:

Because how much you learn in college depends a lot more on you than the college. A determined party animal can get through the best school without learning anything. And someone with a real thirst for knowledge will be able to find a few smart people to learn from at a school that isn’t prestigious at all. At most colleges you can find at least a handful of other smart students, and most people have only a handful of close friends in college anyway. The odds of finding smart professors are even better. The curve for faculty is a lot flatter than for students, especially in math and the hard sciences; you have to go pretty far down the list of colleges before you stop finding smart professors in the math department.

(Also see my post Big schools are no longer giving researchers an edge?)

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

2 thoughts on “It may not matter all that much where you go to college”

  1. My experience is that for regular beaurocratic jobs anyone is fine. For innovative work, you really have to go the top 10 of the top universities.

  2. I guess it depends on the definition of “elite,” but neglecting that for the moment, I think quality of educational opportunity is a pretty flat curve in the physical sciences and engineering at the undergraduate level for something like the top 100 schools. And it may be the case that students at the elite schools aren’t as hungry as those “a step down” and so they don’t make as much use of these opportunities as they might.

    There’s also something to be said about what one might call “added value”: “non-elite” schools quite possibly are making a greater impact in their students’ lives — there’s a greater increment of learning taking place. One shouldn’t discount the positive impact on someone’s life of that sort of experience. Or the negative impact of having good grades always come easy (or getting a free pass due to family connections, for the Harvard and Yale crowd). Paul has already written that the difference between success and failure in startups is essentially not giving up in the face of adversity.

    We should also keep in mind that the numbers of people he’s writing about isn’t that great, and that they are self-selected (how many mediocre students try to get money from him?).

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