Paul Graham on College

Great essay from Paul Graham about why college prestige doesn’t matter. (I wish I had both the time and ability to churn out his volume of high-quality writing.) My favorite parts were the following two footnotes:

…No one ever measures recruiters by the later performance of people they turn down.[2]…

[2] Actually, someone did, once. Mitch Kapor’s wife Freada was in charge of HR at Lotus in the early years. (As he is at pains to point out, they did not become romantically involved till afterward.) At one point they worried Lotus was losing its startup edge and turning into a big company. So as an experiment she sent their recruiters the resumes of the first 40 employees, with identifying details changed. These were the people who had made Lotus into the star it was. Not one got an interview.

…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. [3]…

[3] The US News list? Surely no one trusts that. Even if the statistics they consider are useful, how do they decide on the relative weights? The reason the US News list is meaningful is precisely because they are so intellectually dishonest in that respect. There is no external source they can use to calibrate the weighting of the statistics they use; if there were, we could just use that instead. What they must do is adjust the weights till the top schools are the usual suspects in about the right order. So in effect what the US News list tells us is what the editors think the top schools are, which is probably not far from the conventional wisdom on the matter. The amusing thing is, because some schools work hard to game the system, the editors will have to keep tweaking their algorithm to get the rankings they want.

As an alum of a fairly prestigious institution, I think I endorse Graham’s conclusions.


  1. Herb Sep 6

    The problem with the Paul Graham’s provocative article is that his conclusions are based on casual empiricism. One can tell little about the world if your understanding is based upon your own experience. In the case of small scale start-ups, one’s funded by Graham’s group, perhaps college choice makes little difference. But anyone who is confronted with 200 to 300 applications for 1 position, will usually factor in the quality of the institution from which the applicant graduated from. It’s a case of asymetrical information. With limited time available, employers must use screens or proxies to select finalists for positions. Their assumption is that people from the elite colleges are brighter than those from lower tier schools, at least on average. And time constraints forces them to rely on averages.

  2. Steve Laniel Sep 6

    At my employer, we get around the asymmetry problem in what seems to me a fairer way: we give applicants a programming test. Actually we advertise with programming puzzles: if you can solve them, apply.

    More generally, though, I’ve often heard it said that the college you attended has little to do with your job performance after your first job. I wonder how true that is.

    As for Herb’s comment: surely it’s true that people do rely on this sort of information to make quick decisions in the absence of substantial decisionmaking time. The question is whether this is rational. I can see arguments either way. I wonder if anyone has data on the actual performance of, say, Harvard grads as compared to SUNY Buffalo grads, controlling for the fact that the former will likely get much different jobs than the former when they’ve only just graduated. How about honors students at SUNY Buffalo, as compared to the 91% of Harvard students who graduated with honors in 2001? Surely the signaling value of a Harvard honors award should be on the decline.

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