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Does the college matter

This is a nice article that says no.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58951-2002Dec31.html
This was posted on /. yesterday. It seems to be a recurring topic here so I thought someone might be interested.

Doug Withau
Thursday, January 02, 2003

So one of the brightest and most savvy coders at my office is not from a big name university.  And I've interviewed folks from big name universities who had the programming skills of a deep sea slug.

What college you graduated from matters most when you are looking for your first job because it's an easy way to screen resumes.  And having no college degree at all often times shows that somebody's not determined enough to go through 4 years of classes to get to a defined goal.  Which is better than the attitude that some people take, thinking that college is superflous.

The big problem is that there's no way to quantify abstract properties of a person like work ethic, intelligence, and problem solving skills.  So you fall back to things like interviews and references.  And when there's too many canidates, you fall back from that to things like college and other things listed on the resume.

Of course, the whole thing about you being able to learn how to do anything you want before the age of 30 scares me.  If I can't learn anything new after I turn 30, kill me now. :/

w.h.
Thursday, January 02, 2003

I'm so sick of these ridiculous arguments that going to Prairie State is somehow better than going to Harvard or Stanford. This guy didn't even have the wherewithall to either figure out that the teacher might not give a glowing recommendation or even to ask the teacher if the rec would be ok?? Of course there are going to be tons of people from lesser known schools who achieve tremendous "success" but puh-leaze, to suggest that suggest that attendance at an Ivy doesn't matter is preposterous.

pb
Thursday, January 02, 2003

Even though there are plenty of smart people that come out of second-tier schools, I have to admit that an Ivy League school on a resume leaps out at me. When I'm screening a hundred resumes, I look for highly selective institutions (of all sorts). Things like Harvard, the Marines, and McKinsey on a resume all leap out at me because they are selective institutions in and of themselves and, all else being equal, people who have gotten through those selection processes are likely to be better candidates for my own selection process.

It also takes some knowledge of what consitutes a "selective institution." It helps to know that Penn is Ivy, Penn State is not. It helps to know that the Indian Institute of Technology is so unbelievably selective that almost no MIT grad would pass the entrance exam :) It helps to know what the selective regional schools are. It helps to know that Microsoft and D.E. Shaw submit applicants to a full day of interviews with five or six interviewers, while other companies like Value America were notorious for just hiring everybody's family automatically.

Obviously there are scrillions of exceptions, but for a harried recruiter trying to winnow 200 resumes down to 5, looking for the pre-selected candidates can be a time saver.

Joel Spolsky
Thursday, January 02, 2003

I think the writer of that article misstated what the Dale and Kreuger study found.  They didn't find that people who were rejected by the elite schools did as well in their careers as those who graduated from the top schools.  In fact, they found that the average person who went to an average school earned $22,000 less than average person who attended the Harvards and the Princetons (when reassessed 19 years after their freshman year).

What they also found, which is probably the point that the writer was trying to make, was that those who were accepted to one of the most selective schools but chose to go elsewhere, ended up just as well off as those who actually went to the top schools.

See http://www.mslaw.edu/LTV/excerpts/krueger.htm
and
http://www.dartreview.com/issues/2.7.00/ivies.html

Basically, what they are saying is that ultimately it is the talent and determination of the individual, not the school itself, that is the main factor of success.  Of course, I don't think the choice of school is entirely irrelevant, because I figure the majority of those who got accepted to the Ivy League but went elsewhere didn't flock towards Dumb Bum  College.

T. Norman
Thursday, January 02, 2003

Someone getting accepted to a big-ticket school tells you a lot about them - at age 16, the age most high-schoolers are accepted into a college.  I would expect a reasonable coorelation between success at 16 and success at 40.  This makes it a valid factor to consider.

However, given the vast gap between the skills/attitude required to do a 16 year old's homework and the skills/attitude required to do modern software development, I'd be reluctant to give it much weight other than a "gee, that's nice".

Also, isn't it a scary world if someone is truly brandished a success or failure by 16?

There is some validity is using different screening techniques than "everyone else".  You might get a hungrier set of people, need to pay them less, etc. since there is less competition from prospective employers.

Bill Carlson
Thursday, January 02, 2003

Also bear in mind that this and other similar studies only represent *averages*, not absolute truths that apply to every individual.

T. Norman
Thursday, January 02, 2003

I was accepted to the only school that I applied - a tiny regional state college.  I had good scores (95th percentile), they offered a scholarship (room & board), and so off I went.  Mainly I went there because it was close to home and small:  An easy weekend drive and about 1000 students.  No regrets though.  Even if I would have applied and been accepted at an Ivy League college my parents were too poor to pay such exorbitant tuition.

Does it matter?  No, but my situation is a little different.  After leaving my rural home, then going to a small-town college, I finally arrived in the 'big city', which really isn't.  There's less than 1 million people here, and most of the college grads end up leaving the state due to a lack of opportunities.  Here just having a degree is a little bit of a boost.  But even then, most employers value experience much much more.

The problem with Joel's methodology, as Bill alluded to, is that your track is 'softly' set at around age 16.  You go to a good high school and perform well, then you go to a good college and perform well, then you go to a good company and perform well, then you get the promotion and perform well...  If you jump off that track anywhere along the way, watch out!

my address will never be revealed
Thursday, January 02, 2003


Hiring decisions are a game of statistics -- there are no guarantees.

Like it or not, the presence of a degree from a well-regarded University has a reasonably strong statisticial correlation with some traits which are desirable in an employee.  For example, people who can finish a tough degree are people who have learned how to finish.  That's important, especially in a software project where many of us lose our motivation after the code is written and before the bugs are fixed.

Does this mean a degree is necessary?  No.

Does this mean it's impossible to find great developers (who can finish) without a degree?  Certainly not.

But hiring decisions are tough, so most people use some sort of indicators to estimate the probability of competence and fit.

In the end, it's still all about probabilities.

Eric W. Sink
Thursday, January 02, 2003

I look at standardized test scores, a successful independent history, and college. A worldclass gymnast with a 1500 SAT from MIT is better than someone from devry with a 1020 SAT ...for certain positions.

   
Thursday, January 02, 2003

the college does not matter as much if you are prepared to work your ass off for a living. you can definitely make $150,000 with a degree from State , or no degree at all. However that salary will come when you become a consultant after 10 years of busting your hump.  If you graduate from Harvard there is a better chance that you will be able to land a job making $150,000 a year much sooner, doing far less grungy work.

The real advantage to going to an Ivy league school is not that it makes you look better than the kids who went to state in the resume pool. The advantage is that the Ivy leaguers get pipelined into a pool of jobs that the people who went to State don't have obvious access to.

I went to shithole state and certainly could have sent in a resume to McKinsey, but I'm pretty sure no one would have looked at it. The guy who went to Harvard has access to the McKinsey recruiting dinner held on campus.

That all said, in my own experience, correllations between salary/education/job satisfaction have been all over the place. My friend who finished Harvard has a cushy high-paying middle management job at a tech firm, but also appears to be drinking himself to death due to boredom. My other friend who dropped out of MIT lived in squalor for 4 years but had a great time being an intellectual beatnik type and recently sold his seemingly flailing startup for a lot of money. I barely made it through UMass Lowell (don't laugh) and have a stable, boring research programming job, but I get to work from home and take vacation whenever I want. so, as always: YMMV.

soda
Thursday, January 02, 2003

Here's an anecdote for what it's worth.

When I was 15 or 16 I took the PSAT and got a perfect score. Some months later, I received a personal hand written letter from a gentleman in a nearby community stating that he was an alumni of MIT and that he worked with their recruiting and admissions department as a volunteer in some capacity. He repeated my PSAT results, mentioned the name of my high-school college admissions counselor, and invited my to dinner at a snazzy restaurant.

At the time I didn't know much about MIT but I was living in a pretty unstable environment and a free meal sounded pretty darn good, that it was at a good restaurant was a huge plus so I accepted. I had a good dinner and he talked about the businesses he had founded and things he had invented and such and asked me questions about my goals, beliefs and motivations. He seemed to already know a little about my unpleasant home life, I assume from my high school counselor.

At the end he told me that I would be welcome at MIT and find others who thought like I did. He also assured me that my financial situation would not be anything to concern me.

Later my high school counselor confirmed that MIT does this sometimes and that he had talked with the guy on the phone.

A year later I found myself expelled from high-school and working in fast-food, followed by a career of warehouse work, then jobs workin with extremely dangerous chemicals and manhandling giant heavy objects. Everyone assumed I was stupid - some even said it to my face. It took many years to dig myself out of this pit but I remembered the way MIT treated me. I managed to get into a very well thought of school that consistently ranks in the top of all schools in the US News & World Report survey. I worked my way through school on a low paying telecommuting job designing software for deep-space probes. I graduated Summa Cum Laude and then continued on with my life and validated what MIT saw in me years before. The suffering in my life continued but I will say that I greatly respected the way MIT treated me and it was a factor in my later successes - I now run my own company and live a respectable and decent life.

A university that puts that much thought and concern and *investment* into its students is a university that I greatly respect. It differs incredibly and fundamentally in quality from an ordinary university.

anon
Friday, January 03, 2003


I'm surprised it took an article for some people to think about this.

Sure, a college can "matter" but most likely not in the way you would think. I went to a decent university but now, looking back, I regret the dollars invested. At the time, you needed a "B.Sc" to get a job so I look at my university tuition as a $20k bribe to get a recommendation for my first employer.

I took boatloads of programming courses: Fortan, Pascal, C, etc. Some assembly. A compiler course. An early user interace course. All a total waste of time. The only course of any real use in the real world was one in which we had to work as team to produce a large system.

I graduated with just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

You go to university, of course you focus on the gritty programming courses. The graphics courses were always popular even though most graduates had no hope in hell of landing a job doing anything in that field (this was back in the 80's). Software methodology courses were rare and not mandatory. That course I took promoting teamwork was the exception, not the rule. I don't know if schools have changed since my time, but I doubt it.

Universities, in general, are so clueless about the real world of software development that they cannot provide you with the real tools you need.

Bruce Rennie
Friday, January 03, 2003

Bruce, what you are saying is nonsense.  You KNOW that what college teaches budding programmers is relevant.  You're saying that the C, C++, Java that you learned -- or, at the very least, were first exposed to -- in college are not relevant?

That's like going to architecture school, where you learn all about architectural drafting and materials and so forth, and arguing that you "didn't learn anything relevant to being an architect."

programmer
Friday, January 03, 2003


I'm saying exactly that. Do you really think that your knowledge of C++ is what makes you a programmer?

Any monkey can code sufficiently well to produce usable software. I know that's not a particularly popular opinion to have in our industry but everthing I've seen in my 20 years tells me it's true. Learning a programming language is the least of our skills yet it's the one that universities concentrate on.

Bruce Rennie
Friday, January 03, 2003

University does not provide "vocational training".

If you want some monkeys to program-by-numbers you should hire them from technical institutes.

blah
Friday, January 03, 2003


As I said, maybe it's changed since my day, but back then you could get a degree in computers without taking a single software methodology course. My friends were impressed that I was even able to take one course that emphasized team development.

So has this changed?

Btw, the best software architect I've ever worked with has no degree and came from one of those "technical colleges".

Bruce Rennie
Friday, January 03, 2003

I'd say it varies from place to place. It certainly was encouraged at my university ( about 10 years ago ).

The difference in my mind is that a CS degree is exactly that, to teach people the theory and practice of computer science - which may or may not be applicable to any given job.

Whereas most technical institutes courses are aimed at specific jobs - course A produces windows programmers, course B produces DBAs, etc.

blah
Friday, January 03, 2003


Well, yeah, that's the theory anyway.

But universities and colleges don't always do a good job of guiding students. When you get to college you want to learn C++, OO techniques, Java, graphics programming, etc. You don't want to hear any nonsense about modelling, the pro's and con's of an agile proces vs a traditional waterfall approach, etc, etc. Hell, I've met programmers who are 5 years removed from college and still think the same way.

I think my question of a few posts back reaches the crux of the problem: many software developers think that the languages they know is what makes them programmers. And you're right, this is the least of the things that makes us programmers and is something that is better taught in a technical school. I'm just not sure if universities understand that too.

Bruce Rennie
Friday, January 03, 2003

Note that the point of the article linked by the original poster, and the study by Dale and Krueger, was not that going to college didn't matter.  It was that the choice of college didn't matter much.

And Bruce, I'm sorry you didn't pick a college that taught you something useful.  The concepts that I learned in college - such as object-oriented design, various algorithms, big-O complexity, and the math courses have been very valuable to me on the job.

T. Norman
Friday, January 03, 2003


Save your sympathies. I had a great time at school. Learned a lot as well, just not what the professors intended.

I'm not saying that college is irrelevant either. Just that it is a VERY small part of becoming a successful programmer. Small enough that I don't feel my tuition was good value for the money.

I'm happy you feel otherwise.

Bruce Rennie
Friday, January 03, 2003

It only really matters for the first 5 or so years anyway, after that experience is much more relevant.

blah
Friday, January 03, 2003

Most important thing students should learn on college is problem solving. Everyone can be coder, just take long enough course (just how much "experienced" VB or Java "programmers" is there).
I, personally, had best experiences with math students. They had just enough CS and much more math. They know how to solve problem, they learn how to do detailed and strict analysis. And if they have any interest in software design, they will probably be very good developers.

drazen
Friday, January 03, 2003

Bruce,

I am still skeptical of your claim that what you learned in college isn't a big part of being a programmer.  I think you are underestimating what you learned in college -- if you had not had the training in programming languages, software design, project management, and whatever else you studied, you wouldn't have even known where to get started in a programming job.

Your attitude seems to be, "I didn't learn anything in school that I could use; I learned everything I know in the big, bad world."  Could there be a little bit of macho arrogance in your claim?

In my workplace, there are two types of programmers: people who were hired knowing C, C++, Java, Perl, etc., and people who were hired from other fields.  As one of the latter, I can attest that it would be far preferable to have come in with those languages -- even at a basic, cursory level -- than to come in without them.

If you were an employer, would you view people who hadn't studied programming as equally viable candidates as those who had studied the fundamentals?

programmer
Friday, January 03, 2003

College does a good job of teaching you how to think.  Occasionally, you will pick up useful programming skills, too.  Algorithm skills are always useful and are often taught, for example. 

Of course, even then, the important part is often not covered too well.  While it's not important to know quicksort by rote, knowing the variety of sorting algorythms and how they compare to using trees, hashes, non-comparison-based-sorting, and insertion sort in a big-picture issue is quite useful and important.

But most of what I've learned about coding, I learned by doing or by personal research, either before or after I graduated.  This is partially because my college has bright profs who can't teach, meaning that you need to learn everything yourself so you can pass the hard test.  Torture, but not a bad way to develop one's thought process.

That's what college is about.  Well, that, and the potential networking if you come from a famed school.

w.h.
Friday, January 03, 2003

Sorry for the long rant, but I have some strong opinions on the subject …

  Is what college you attend and your academic performance important?  In terms of being a bullet-point on a resume and a ticket into the professional world, ABSOLUTELY!  This is especially true in a highly competitive job market.  People who say otherwise are either just being ignorant, or were able to break in when things weren’t as tough, and now have the professional experience to make up for not having a degree. 

  But is college important for teaching you everything you need to know?  Of course not!  And yes, certain people can learn everything they need to know on their own.  But unless a person already has tons of professional experience, can figure out how to start and sustain a successful company on their own, or can otherwise attain profitable self-employment, the degree is still a ticket that needs to get punched.  And grades/school attended matter for the person trying to bust into the professional world. 

  It’s always interesting to hear about other people’s experience with college.  It would be a severe overstatement to say that Computer Science was irrelevant for me (although much of the material admittedly was).  Not assigning projects that teach about multi-threaded programming at the undergraduate level was an absolute crime! (I don’t know if this has changed or how things vary from school to school).  Learning specifics about the Ada programming language and Big ‘O’ notation were just not relevant (although Ada is probably relevant in certain industries).  Having an understanding of computational complexity and good programming structure is relevant though. 

  Push-down automata, finite state automata, formal grammars, and writing a language compiler are in outer space.  But learning how to absorb abstract concepts, apply them in tackling complex project, getting the damned thing done, getting it done correctly, and getting it done on time is huge!

  Some people here have correctly observed that trying to accurately quantify the latter trait in an individual is tough if not impossible.  And so in a competitive job market, stuff like school-attended and academic performance become metrics by which people are weeded out. 

  Do some people cheat or bribe their way through school.  Unfortunately yes.  Do some people consciously and successfully avoid the tough professors and tough classes to keep their academic performance records pristine, while more capable people challenge themselves and learn more, only to achieve lower marks?  Sure.  Do quality people get weeded out based on unfair criteria or ridiculously specific and transitory skillsets.  Sure.  But gee whiz, life is tough and it’s not always fair.  Demanding and expecting fairness in everything is a good way to drive yourself insane. 

Nick B.
Friday, January 03, 2003

Anon, (who was courted by MIT)  what school did you end up attending?  (Congratulations on your success, btw)

M H
Friday, January 03, 2003

Isn't college where people learn things like map-filter-fold?  Even though I personally didn't learn it there, I definitely had to read a college textbook for it.  And I use it everyday when I write code.

I remember there was a list of schools that teach such things to intro students; likely mentioned on Lambda the Ultimate.  It would be useful if you're looking for a certain kind of programmer.

Tj
Friday, January 03, 2003

MH, May I answer you privately? I posted anonymously because I am an anti-credentialist in nature, though I did want to make my point despite that about both that some schools are really good neighbors and also that one doesn't have to get stuck. I don't want to unveil the anonymity publically with a clue such as what college I actually went to, but I don't mind telling you privately and Joel's mail set up does appear to allow for anonymous communication (I think).

anon
Friday, January 03, 2003

OK, I just tested it.

You go to a page where you can send an email to the person but it doesn not reveal their email address. Upon sending it, the email is sent to them with whatever email info the sender gives on the posting page.

Thus if you post a email link, I can answer your question without knowing who you are or you who I am.

anon
Friday, January 03, 2003

"Is what college you attend and your academic performance important?  In terms of being a bullet-point on a resume and a ticket into the professional world, ABSOLUTELY!"

In a generic sense it might be important, in that employers expect the average grad from Harvard will be better than the average grad from Central State.  But for the people who went to Central State because they rejected Harvard (as opposed to those rejected *by* Harvard), it may not be so important because such people are likely to get stellar grades at Central State, graduate near the top of their class and get sparkling recommendations from professors.  Their ability to stand out from the crowd makes up for the fact that they didn't go to a big-name school.

In other words, in the end it works out the same whether you were a star at Central State or a middle-of-the-pack Harvard grad.

T. Norman
Saturday, January 04, 2003

FWIW ...

1) I got a B.A. in Anthropology, not Computer Science, Mathematics nor Engineering.

2) I was in the middle of my class, in terms of GPA.

3) I took only 60.5 (out of 120.5) credits for a grade (the rest were Pass/Fail).

4) My hands-on experience was in journalism, not programming.

And when I've interviewed for jobs, they always note, "Oh, so you went to Johns Hopkins ..."

Of course, I've busted my arse to improve my programming skills and knowledge, instead of resting on my laurels.

But don't underestimate how, rightfully or otherwise, graduating from a prestitious school can open doors and give you the edge against comparable applicants.

Joe
http://josephgrossberg.blogspot.com

Joe Grossberg
Saturday, January 04, 2003

Joe Grossberg wrote:
>And when I've interviewed for jobs, they always note, "Oh, so you went to Johns Hopkins ..."

True, but graduates with top grades and other scholastic acheivements (research, engineering competitions, etc.) from a state school also get the same positive response.  Including myself.

If you had chosen to go to a state school, you probably would have graduated in the top 10% of your class and done other good things that would have impressed them in a similar manner.

T. Norman
Saturday, January 04, 2003

I went to Central State and it was a pretty damn good college.  Not only did it save me a small fortune, but I can hire more Ivy league degrees than I could ever earn.

Middle manager
Saturday, January 04, 2003

Where you went to college matters more during the first few years after you graduated from college.  That's because there's no other way to assess your merit -- yet.

But once you've been out of college a few years, it really doesn't matter where you went to college, since your work experience will reveal who your peers are.

In my area of programming, whether we get hired is based on our skill-set -- which is demonstrated by our projects, not by where we got our degree.

People would laugh at you at my workplace if you said, "Oh, let's hire him, he went to an Ivy League school and the other candidate didn't."  You'd look like an idiot if you said that.

(I find that Ivy League degrees matter more in areas where it is difficult to assess competence from a resume.)

programmer
Monday, January 06, 2003

I was 2+ years out of college last time I job-hunted. That's probably a big factor.

Joe Grossberg
Monday, January 06, 2003

A couple of points:

1)  Psychologist Daniel Goleman makes a convincing case for the idea that intelligence is vastly over-rated as a predictor of success in life.  Sure, IQ plays some role, but other factors (your resilience, determination, ability to get along well with others, capacity for delaying gratification, etc.) are far more important.  Goleman's book, "Emotional Intelligence", is worth reading:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553375067/

2)  Perhaps surprisingly, having an MBA degree won't help your career in business:

http://www.business2.com/articles/mag/0,1640,41346,FF.html

(The real data doesn't start until the second page of that article).

Alex Chernavsky
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Don't you have an MBA, Alex?

Was it a big waste of money?

rally monkey
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Yeah, I have an MBA.  My pride makes me reluctant to say it was a complete waste, but I think that the time, effort, and money could have been better invested in some other venture.

Part of the problem with MBA programs is that it is essentially impossible to come up with business principles that apply universally.  Anything general enough to be universal is fairly trivial (contrast this to physics, for example, where the laws of motion apply literally everywhere).  The restaurant industry is so much different from, say, the aerospace industry that it's hard to find much in common there.  If you knew _in advance_ that you were going to spend your career working for Lockheed Martin, and you could find an MBA program that specialized in that industry, then a graduate business degree might be useful  to you.  Of course, this doesn't happen in practice.

I worked in pharmaceutical marketing research right out of business school.  Almost everything I needed to know I learned on the job.  I never really used much of anything I learned in business school.

Alex Chernavsky
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

As a potential entrepreneur, I've been thinking my money would be better spent taking a couple of finance and accounting courses at the local community college, as opposed to getting an MBA.  OTOH, my boss told me I could learn all the accounting I need from "Accounting for dummies".

Please weigh in, you're the only MBA I know.

rally monkey
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

I'd get the course syllabi from the instructors, and see if the class structure looks relevant to what you want to learn.  Also, you might find out if there is a course specifically focused on entrepreneurship.  That might be even better.

If you want to continue this discussion, e-mail me.

Alex Chernavsky
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

MBA is definitely key for an entrepreneur. My experience is the best thing about an MBA is you meet a bunch of potential business partners.

pb
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

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