Is an elite university worth it?

Paul Graham makes the provocative claim that “It may not matter all that much where you go to college.” He’s been evaluating startup founders as part of his Y Combinator program for a few years now, 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.” While I agree with his premise that it’s important to evaluate people on their merits, not on where they went to school, I disagree with his conclusion that the college choice does not matter.

Going to a school like MIT drives one to achieve more than one would otherwise. Graham acknowledges that “The other students are the biggest advantage of going to an elite college; you learn more from them than the professors. But you should be able to reproduce this at most colleges if you make a conscious effort to find smart friends.” But I think he underestimates the difficulty of finding those “smart friends” at a typical university as compared to the elite.

In high school, I was never particularly challenged despite being in all of the gifted classes in a very good public school with other privileged intelligent kids. Most of my classmates went on to the University of Illinois, which is a great school, but I would have been able to continue coasting there, getting high grades without really trying. Maybe there would have been a few people there who could challenge me, but finding those few people out of the tens of thousands of students would have been extremely difficult.

Going to MIT raised the bar for me. At MIT, I had to work much harder than I had ever worked before just to keep up. My freshman year, I had a physics classmate who regularly doubled my test scores (he’d get a 96 when I got a 48). Other friends were able to maintain their straight A average with ease while I was struggling to learn study habits that I had never previously needed. I learned humility at MIT in a way that never would have happened at someplace like Illinois.

And such humility continues to be reinforced. While I might be considered successful by many people based on my income and my achievements, I’m below average for my friends. On one mailing list of my friends who are managers, the introductions made me realize I was among the oldest and least accomplished of the participants, as everybody else was a CxO or VP or Director. I haven’t been featured in a New York Times article, as many of my friends have. I don’t have a patent to my name. I am not the world expert at anything. Just this past weekend, it was amazing to hear about all of the great things that people I know have been doing. Because my friends from MIT set a high standard, I am driven to achieve more than I would settle for otherwise.

Graham’s point may be that entrepreneurs need to be sufficiently self-motivated as to not need the competition of others to drive themselves past their limits. I agree with him that one can get an education of similar value at other universities, as the actual course material is the same. Perhaps a proto-entrepreneur would take full advantage of such opportunities without being forced to by the competition of other students. But I know I would not have – that may just demonstrate my laziness, but I often don’t see a reason to work harder than I have to in a given situation.

I also agree that it’s possible that the people that get into elite universities and do well at those universities are the rules-followers, and that to be a good entrepreneur means being a rule-breaker. I would contend, though, that if one can’t figure out how to master the college grading system, one is going to have a significant challenge figuring out how to master the ever-shifting economy of the real world. Learning the rules of a system and how to win under those rules is a skill that is only dismissed by those that can’t figure out how to beat that system.

As I said at the beginning, I agree with Graham’s premise that we should judge people on their own merits, not on where they went to college. But I strongly disagree with his conclusion that college therefore doesn’t matter, as I believe that my merits are much stronger than they would otherwise have been because I went to MIT. I have achieved more and gone further because I struggled through MIT than I ever would have if I had coasted through another school. And I still believe I have a long way to go, because my MIT-educated set of friends makes me believe that I shouldn’t settle for where I am now.

P.S. Having said all that, the admissions process to get into an elite university is truly ridiculous at this point – they may just be flipping coins in the back as there are far more qualified applicants than there are spaces in the incoming class. But I still believe that the education you get is worth it if you can get in because of the caliber of the other students.

P.P.S. Speaking of university, I went to the first class of the term this evening, and this is shaping up to be our hardest term yet. Man, this class is going to be rough. But it’s going to be really good for me if the prof follows through on what his intended goals are.

3 thoughts on “Is an elite university worth it?

  1. Eric I couldnt agree with you more. I am a firm believer that we are products of our environments and we are shaped by the places and people we encounter in our lives. I know for me my college environment was instrumental in my evolution into the woman I am today. Like you I was never challenged during high school and had a bit of an ego. Although I did not attend an elite university I was certainly put in my place by honor scholars.
    I noticed on a previous blog you extended an invitation for blog topic ideas. Id love to hear your perspective on people as products of their environments. You may have already covered this, I see you write alot about community and groups. But if not perhaps you can mull it over. I have another idea for a blog topic, its a selfish one and I will divulge that at another time.

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