The Opposite Problem

Megan McArdle writes:

Let's be honest, coastal folks:  when you meet someone with a thick
southern accent who likes NASCAR and attends a bible church, do you
think, "hey, maybe this is a cool person"?  And when you encounter
someone who went to Eastern Iowa State, do you accord them the same
respect you give your friends from Williams?  It's okay--there's no one
here but us chickens.  You don't.

Maybe you don't know you're
doing it.  But I have quite brilliant friends who grew up in rural
areas and went to state schools--not Michigan or UT, but ordinary state
schools--who say that, indeed, when they mention where they went to
school, there's often a droop in the eyelids, a certain forced quality
to the smile.  Oh, Arizona State.  Great weather out there.  Don't I need a drink or something? This person couldn't possibly interest me.

from a handful of schools, most of them hailing from a handful of major
metropolitan areas, dominate academia, journalism, and the
entertainment industry.  Our subtle (or not-so-subtle) distaste for
everything from their entertainment to their decorating choices to the
vast swathes of the country in which they choose to live permeate
almost everything they read, watch, or hear.  Of course we don't hear
it--to us, that's simply the way the world is. 

I have written before that I go out of my way not to mention my
double-Ivy pedigree within my business dealings because it tends to cause my
employees (who often have no degree at all) to clam up.  I absolutely
depend on their feedback and ideas, and those dry up if my employees
somehow think that I'm smarter than they are and they start to be afraid to "look stupid."

But McArdle's post causes me to think of another reason not to be snobbish about my eastern degrees.  I meet a lot of rich and succesful people out here in the Phoenix area, and I can't remember the last one that had an Ivy League degree.  I am thinking through a few of them right now -- ASU, ASU, Arizona, Kansas State, Tulane, no college, San Diego State....  Getting uppity about my Harvard MBA around here only leaves me vulnerable to the charge of "Person X went to Montana State and is worth $10 million now -- what the hell have you been doing with that Harvard MBA?"  Here in flyover country, college degrees and family pedigree are not really strong predictors of business success.


  1. will:

    While working in New York City (2003-2005) I was responsible for interviewing recent grads (MA in computer science) from ivy league schools. The business I worked for was snobbish and only wanted the ivy league grads. I was not impressed by the schools curriculum, the grads was not taught; Design Patterns, UML, XML, Object Oriented Analysis, Object Oriented Design, and Use cases, if they knew about these subjects they learned them from other sources. We had to teach these subjects in our training courses. The advantage the students had was they were smart and able to learn these skills.

    Over the years I have worked with people with advance degrees from Berkley, Standard, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Princeton, MIT and other top name schools and not once in a merit review was a person school ever used to determine salary increase or promotion. Those of us with state school degrees often was able to out perform those with the elite school degree. I especially enjoyed completing the ivy league grads education by filling them in on all the things their schools did not teach.

  2. Flatland:

    Same goes for engineering. I would much rather have some "farm boy" from the midwest who went to a decent state school simply because their upbringing (work ethic, initiative, innovation) is likely to provide them advantages in the workplace.

  3. alejandro:

    Robert Noyce went to colege in Grinnell,Iowa ,where he was born ( ), founded Fairchild and co-founded Intel with Gordon Moore; and Jack Kilby ( ) graduated from Wisconsing-Millwauke before getting a PHd in Illinois.

    They invented the microchip ( Integrated circuit) and Kilby won a Nobel prize for his work.

  4. Mike Enzi, NIMBY:

    It's a shame that education and intelligence have been so devalued because of the fear of being hit with bogus "elitist" talking points intended to stir up class jealousy of academics. No one seems to care that CEOs and business leaders have much more elite, privileged lives than any academician. I don't care if my business contractors or elected officials are people I'd "want to have a beer with;" I want them to be smart and competent, above all else.

  5. eCurmudgeon:

    I'm more inclined to take a page from Charles Murray (author of the book "Real Education"), and move away from explicit "degree" requirements in favor of straight-out aptitude/certification testing.

  6. William Newman:

    A degree from a good school can tell you something about someone's competentce, but only somewhat weakly and unreliably. Schools aren't all that reliable at either measuring people or training them, and then after they do, people can change. I think a lot of the tendency to overweight degrees heavily stems from the same cause as overweighting buzzwords on resumes: it's so easy. Then, once you decide to focus on the easy thing, you can find various ways to rationalize laziness. Looking for your keys under the lightpost is a good idea!

    That said, Will may be underestimating the potential value of advanced training. If you're in a field that prioritizes "Design Patterns, UML, XML, Object Oriented Analysis, Object Oriented Design, and Use cases," then people from prestige backgrounds may seem particularly unimpressive. There is a seriously difficult general basket of skills under some of that --- a knack for managing complexity in large systems, more or less. And OO is a reasonably difficult specialized skill. Those skills are reasonable things to hire for: especially, it can take a very long time to get a novice up to speed in managing complexity in large systems, and some of them will just never get it.

    (Conversely, things like UML, XML, and use cases seem to me like superficial choices of notation. If you prefer candidate X to candidate Y based on those skills, I suspect You Are Doing It Wrong.)

    Unfortunately, people don't seem to get those skills from schools. Schools aren't terribly effective either at training students to manage complexity in large systems or at training students in OO design. Various schools don't put a high priority on them, either. So if those are the key foundational skills in your subfield of software, name-brand degrees will tend to look particularly weak. (And if you're scanning resumes of inexperienced hires, maybe look at things like summer projects instead of degrees.)

    If Will, or any other programmer, wants people from big-name schools to have a decent chance to look good, I suggest looking in fields which are downstream from skills that they do teach relatively effectively in big-name schools. In subfields which I'm most familiar with, math is upstream. In some other fields, the basket of optimizing compiler technologies is upstream. And in some other fields, it's helpful to understand both sides of the CS/EE border. All three of those upstream skill baskets are taught relatively effectively in various name-brand schools.

    It seems to be hard to get an untrained new hire up to speed in statistics, or in advanced algorithms. (Hard like training someone to manage complexity in large systems, not like getting someone up to speed in XML.) Thus years ago when I went to IETF meetings, it didn't surprise me that advanced degrees from name schools seemed to be overrepresented in the security/crypto working groups, downstream from a lot of math and devious algorithms. Today, it doesn't surprise me that Google and Wall Street apparently hire people with impressive formal training in statistics.

    (Even in those fields, I think it's wise not to weight degrees very heavily. But when you find degree-independent ways to assess people's competence, don't be too surprised if a sizeable fraction of the assessed-competent people have the appropriate degrees.)

  7. Paul:

    You are getting the comparison backwards.

    There are more successful Ivy grads than unsuccessful Ivy grads, but more non-Ivy grads are successful, through sheer numbers.

  8. will:

    My point was that ivy league schools didn't have a more impressive curriculum than other school and the skills set I mentioned I taught in DeVry undergrad program. But we hired the students in spit of not having the skill set because they were "smart and able to learn these skills" to quote myself. They were enjoyable to teach because of their intelligence, I didn't have to repeat the subject very often, unlike some of my DeVry students. :-)

    I have two nieces that did there undergrad work (Engineering) at Carnegie Mellon which resulted in massive debt. My advice to them was to go to Pitt for the undergrad, do well and then get a Master at CMU, they would still be a CMU grad but with less debt. (They both was offered a 100% free ticket to Pitt.)

    The key in hiring people and expecting good results is to hire people with the ability to learn and then apply those skills, not just where they went to school. There are many gems to be found in the pool of state supported schools and just looking at the elite schools will cause the employer to miss out on some stellar performers. My NYC employer only looked in one pool for their junior employees (recent grads), but they still hired a state school grad to finish their education.

    Also don't call me a programmer, I do software engineering which is a larger skill set than just programming.