Advice to those applying to college

I sent an email recently to a couple of my favorite 17-year-olds (two of three triplets). They’re applying to colleges and anxious about where they’ll be accepted. I thought my email might be of interest to others, so I’m posting it below.

Your dad says that you’re applying to college. Remember that nearly all careers in the U.S. now require a graduate degree. Nobody will ever ask where you went for undergrad. It is not especially helpful to go to a prestige university undergrad because the professors won’t know who you are and won’t be persuasive about getting you into grad school. Economists found that people admitted to Ivy League schools who chose to attend state schools instead ended up with the same income. Being smart enough to get accepted to a top school has some value but actually attending the top school doesn’t have any value compared to U. Mass. And the most prestigious schools are research universities (e.g., MIT, Stanford, Princeton, etc.). It isn’t really even part of a professor’s job to teach undergrads and, in fact, they do very poorly at teaching. Check my analysis of a lecture by one of Yale’s top professors within
You need a bachelor’s degree, of course, but don’t succumb to the undergraduate admissions industry’s efforts to convince you that your whole life depends on what happens in the next few months. I was an undergrad at George Washington University and MIT. My fellow students at MIT were smarter/more interesting. My professors at GWU were much more interested and engaged with me. I wouldn’t say that MIT was vastly better than GWU or vice versa.

19 thoughts on “Advice to those applying to college

  1. I remember my 7th grade science teacher giving me the same advice back in the early 80ies. The only question I have in these stratified days is if it isn’t much more important to start networking with the Right People™, with actual coursework and learning being somewhat secondary.

  2. Do your favourite 17-year-olds have any idea what they’re planning / hoping to do with their careers, or are they just going to college because they feel like that’s what’s expected of them?

    Assuming the answer is “no” or “I’ll figure that out in year three,” has anyone asked whether they feel that getting a liberal arts degree is a great use of $80,000 and 4 years opportunity cost? Not to look down on a classical education — far from it — but it was a whole different story when you could pay for college by working a part-time job + summers.

    Now, you have to *really* want that classics degree, for that to seem like a rational use of time and capital.

  3. I was surprised when you said that most careers require graduate degrees today. Can you support that? I’m not seeing that, not even remotely.

    It strikes me that my vantage point may affect my view — I’m in the Midwest, and I’m in software. My experience is that the best programmers skipped college or didn’t finish their undergrad, and out here we have a bit of a blue-collar ethic that, unfortunately, disdains too much higher ed anyway.

  4. A professor friend told my daughter 4 years ago that the only Ivy worth considering was Princeton because the focus was on undergrads. He is an Ivy grad (Harvard, PhD).

  5. Jim: Does the average job require a master’s or PhD/MD/JD? No. But my main message was that they shouldn’t lose sleep over whether or not they get admitted to Undergraduate College X. The software engineering jobs that you talk about don’t require an advanced degree but of course they don’t require a bachelor’s from a specific institution either. Anyway, these particular kids have an extended family that is pretty heavy with medical doctors, MBAs, lawyers, etc. in the previous generation. So it seems safe to assume that they too will indulge in post-graduate education.

  6. Not everyone is made to be in school (University or even High School), just like not everyone is made to be a sport — our brains varies, just like our body physical. But our government and educational institutions will say otherwise and make you believe that without a higher education you won’t be successful even when there are enough evidence, to show otherwise [1].

    What the US needs is an education system like the Germans have [2], a solid vocational / trade school for those who are not into math and science. This will help eliminate the job shortage our manufacturing field is facing [3], and will make something out of our kids future, and this country.



    [3] or

  7. George: I’m not sure that these two kids need to go to trade school. They are very academically-oriented (already speaking fluent Arabic, for example, despite having no Arabic speakers in their family). In order for the current Congress’s plans to work out, most of our 17-year-olds will eventually need to earn well over $400,000 per year each so that they can pay the top tax rates and chip away at the debt that we are bequeathing to them.

  8. – I would not recommend advising kids they need a graduate degree to have any sort of career (I assume this was facetious), it could easily wind up damning them to a future of student loan debt slavery in a hellish law/medical/academic career. It is not at all impossible or even particularly difficult to launch a remunerative career with a bachelor’s degree in an in-demand field.

    – If they aren’t independently wealthy (i.e. must work to support themselves after graduation) I would make a point of emphasizing that they should move heaven and earth to graduate in at MOST 4 years, and defenestrate any talk of “following your passion” towards a worthless Art History or Grievance Studies degree. Being able to support yourself reliably and comfortably in a tolerable job should be the focus, not some follow-your-bliss fairy tale that has only ever really applied to the idle rich or prodigiously talented.

    – Bright kids are well advised towards engineering and computer science disciplines, or highly quantitative business disciplines like actuarial science. Average-IQ kids can do well in fields that emphasize diligence and conscientiousness over raw brainpower (I’ve heard that accounting, linguistics, and IT are all decent choices here). There is no reason for a middle class person who aspires to some day be financially independent and debt-free to major in the humanities.

  9. You don’t go to Yale, or Harvard, or MIT for the %50 boost it’ll give you in your average IT/finance/management salary, you go so that you meet a Gates, Zuckerberg, Clinton, or Gore, who calls you up one day and says “Hey, you were always a little better at _____ than I was, and I’m starting this new thing, and I could really use your help”

  10. It’s likely that with ever rising payroll taxes & insurance costs, any long term employment in US doing anything more advanced than 3 month contracts porting Perl scripts to Python will require a graduate degree. There is really advanced work in China for BS degree holders, designing robots & working on their space program, in exchange for paying under $40,000 & not providing any benefits. To do the same thing in US would require an MS, simply because of the taxes.

  11. I tend to agree with SuperMike, going to a school that has a large tight network of successful grads is a significant advantage compared to someone who attended the best state school in his state (UT Austin, in my case).

    Especially these days, who you know is more important than what you know.

    I strongly suspect there is little or no statistically significant difference in actual learning between the average UT grad compared to the average Yale grad with similar majors.

    The difference is that the Yale grad has spent four years with a small group of the offspring of the rich and powerful.

    The UT grad has spent four years with 50,000 students from all all walks of life.

    Which grad is statistically more likely to have made friends with a future CEO, Senator, or GS-14?

    I also think you might suggest to your potential students that they look at government careers.

    For example, Mohammad Safi, graduate of a medical school in Afghanistan, earned $822,302 working as a California prison psychiatrist in 2011. That’s just salary, not including hyper-generous vacation, medical, and retirement plans.

    I’m sure you are familiar with the disparity in pay and benefits between airline pilots and FAA air traffic controllers.

    There’s a reason the richest city in America is Washington DC. And DC loves Ivy League graduates.

  12. SuperMike: I think the “uber networking opportunity” argument makes sense only for those who are especially charming and/or from prominent families already. I know some kids from middle class families who went through Harvard without ever making any important connections. The children of the rich have special clubs at Harvard to which a graduate of a suburban public school is unlikely to be invited. There are important and powerful people who graduated from Ivy League schools, of course, but they are a tiny percentage of the undergrad population and the statistical chance of having been close friends with one of them is not high enough to justify the cost in fees and the cost of not learning very much (since Ivy League professors are not primarily educators).

    [A reformulation of your argument would be “I am going to live in Los Angeles so that I can be friends with Tom Cruise and other great thespians.”]

  13. philg: I read “The Idea Factory” based on a recommendation from you years ago, this posting and subsequent comments reminded me of it.

    Since the time you made the recommendation you’ve earned your doctorate at MIT, and have spent time there as faculty.

    What is your take on the book now?

  14. Philip: I think you and George are answering different questions.

    I think the German model of trade schools works very well for achieving competency in various trades. Generally speaking, if you go to any auto mechanic/plumber/florist in Germany, you can be fairly certain that that person is qualified at their job.

    Regarding whether or not attending a top ranked school is worth the cost. It may very much depend on the career path you choose to follow. If you want to be a Chemical Engineer, then my understanding is that the University of Minnesota is by far the best place to become one (based upon a 50 year reputation). And, I should note that a BA in engineering is an employable credential. So Philip, I would reject your characterization that “nearly all careers in the U.S. now require a graduate degree.”

    I agree with you that the undergraduate institution one attends is less important than the graduate school one goes to. However, there is an important issue you alluded to:
    If a student attends a 3rd rate institution, he/she will be surrounded by students who aren’t as ambitious or sharp. My experience with students where I work is that they end up feeling somewhat bored.

    As far as networking goes, I believe that matters more at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level.

  15. One of the biggest values brand schools provide is signaling. If someone actually graduated from MIT or Harvard, then employers can easily verify this info and assume that the kid is smart. If the kid gets admitted to these top schools but chooses to go to a local state school instead, it takes more work for him/her to signal his intelligence and skills to prospective employers or VCs in the future.

    Bryan Caplan at econlog has many posts on this and is currently writing a book on how undergrad degrees are *all* about signaling. Tyler Cowen, fellow economist at George Mason, disagrees and (at his Marginal Revolution blog) has posts talking about how people actually learn things and develop human capital. My opinion is probably closer to Tyler: degrees in math, science and engineering are more likely to be useful in teaching students skills, but liberal arts degrees are largely about signaling.

    Phil, you got VC funding back in the day, your MIT degree probably helped. I live and work in Silicon Valley and graduated from MIT myself in 2003/4, and know that graduates from schools like Stanford and MIT have an easier time getting seed or VC funding (I have many friends who went to both schools). While I have my differences with MIT, I do think I learned many useful skills there, especially in Computer Science.

    Finally, a big piece is, undergrad should be fun. Some of my friends think of their MIT days as the best time of their lives.

  16. Murali: A company that I financed and founded did get mezzanine VC funding (i.e., not early stage funding; the company’s first three years of growth were funded by me and then by customer revenue). You can attribute the funding to the fact that I had an MIT degree (albeit I don’t think that anybody ever asked about where I got a bachelor’s). You could also choose to attribute it to the fact that the company had $20 million per year in revenue, $7 million per year in pre-tax profit, and a customer list that included Oracle, HP, Siemens, and the World Bank.

    John Klein: I wasn’t suggesting that the Ivies were comparable to “a 3rd rate institution”. I don’t think that there is anything third rate about a big state university such as University of Maryland or University of Michigan. There are plenty of smart and interesting people at those big state schools if only due to the sheer number of undergraduates and graduate students attending.

  17. Philg: You addressed the issue of quality, and I agree with your remark that there are plenty of bright people at a big state school.

    But you haven’t discussed cost.

    Non-resident tuition at U-Michigan is now about 40K/year. Add to that room and board, and it’s about 50K. That’s pretty close to an Ivy price!

  18. John: I wouldn’t suggest that a Maryland resident go to Michigan and pay out-of-state tuition rather than attending University of Maryland. My whole point was that most states have at least one good state-run state-subsidized school. If a young person’s parents have been paying taxes for 18 years to support the state university, the young person won’t be disadvantaged by attending the university and getting some of their his or her parents’ money back.

    Generally a lot of things in life are easier if one doesn’t overspend. So in addition to not worrying too much about being accepted at a school with a fancy reputation I would also counsel families not to bankrupt themselves sending a child to an allegedly superior undergraduate institution. Perhaps a school such as Olin College in Needham, MA (lab-based approach to learning engineering and science) or St. John’s in Annapolis and Sante Fe (great books; original materials) is genuinely better. But otherwise most colleges and universities do pretty much the same things in the same ways. I think if we had nationwide standardized tests for proficiency and adjusted for proficiency going into college we would find that there was not a huge difference among lecture-plus-homework-based colleges.

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