Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Paul Graham on the value of an elite college

Paul Graham with three others run Y Combinator which funds small startup companies. They fund an average of 40 companies a year. They review 900 applications each year.

In News From the Front Paul explains how he has come to the conclusion that what college a person goes to has little to do with how successful they will be in their career. He has been able to see quickly who can perform and who can't. He used to have a tendency to accept those who went to a prestigous university "must be smarter than they seem." After losing money in a number of startups by graduates of elite colleges Paul focused more on who the person really was, not what school they attended.

Paul writes:

"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."

The top, expensive, schools have traditionally commanded a lot of respect. People fight to get into these schools. Paul points out that those in the admissions administration have targets and goals which students learn to game, to fake out, and to work around.

Later in the article Paul says:

"... 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."

His conclusion is that smart, compable students can do just fine attending a good college, without the huge price tag that the ivy league schools charge. Something to think about parents.

The whole article is worth reading.

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Matthew K. Tabor said...

I read this article when it came out and have been thinking about it since. There are some solid points and some weak reasoning - I've been working up a response for a few days, but it's a long one.

redhead83402 said...

Absolutely excellent article!! I have had that heretical thought for years now ~ awesome to see it in print elsewhere ~ Thank you for blogging it :-D
ps ~ matthew, in my own humble opinion, the reasoning is only weak "skin deep". If more elaboration were given, (at least the elaborations going on in my own head) I doubt even the weak reasoning would be weak.

Henry Cate said...

I enjoy Paul Graham's essays. I think two of his best are one on intelligent procrastination:

and why nerds are not popular in high school:

Barbara Frank said...

Henry, I was happy to see your post on this article in the new Carnival as I had just read the article at PG's site the other day. Great post! However, I wish PG had taken it a step further: how many of his successful startups have come from people who did not graduate from college? I'm no longer convinced that a college degree is a guarantee of anything (and yes, I have a degree, and my son just got his in May).

Thanks for the post!

Lostcheerio said...

Interesting. As someone who went to a state school in the midwest because I got a full scholarship there, I'm happy to know that should I ever decide to use my degrees for anything, I don't need to feel bad about not going to Harvard. ;)