What I’ve been reading

Published by Lori Pickert on February 28, 2014 at 01:25 PM

“Learning is more than learning to conform.” — Paradoxes of Learning, Peter Jarvis


I’ve been seeing lots of articles lately about how employers no longer consider elite degrees as important or desirable as they once were.

“The least important attribute they look for is ‘expertise.’

Said Bock: ‘If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills, and you hire them as an H.R. person or finance person, and they have no content knowledge, and you compare them with someone who’s been doing just one thing and is a world expert, the expert will go: “I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.”’ Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer, added Bock, ‘because most of the time it’s not that hard.’ Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, he said, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that.”

[W]hen you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.

“Beware. Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).

And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.” — How to Get a Job at Google


“[B]usiness leaders are now echoing Google by saying that college pedigree and major don’t matter as much as people think in hiring decisions.

A new Gallup survey finds that in hiring decisions, only 9 percent of business leaders say that the school on a candidate’s diploma is ‘very important,’ compared to 84 percent assessing knowledge in the field and 79 percent looking at applied skills.”

“Google’s head of people operations Laszlo Bock told the New York Times that top graduates can lack ‘intellectual humility,’ and that schools frequently don’t deliver on what they promise.”

“96 percent of college provosts say students are prepared, compared to 14 percent of the public, and 11 percent of business leaders.” 

“It could be that higher education is really not preparing people at all and we have a broken system, or just a fundamental misunderstanding. Either way it’s a tragedy…” — Survey: Businesses Don’t Care if their Employees went to Yale

So almost 100% of colleges think they’re doing a great job of preparing students for work and only 11% of business leaders agree. There’s a bit of a disconnect there.

So what about for future entrepreneurs? Does a top college degree matter there?

Recently a venture capitalist told students at the Harvard School of Business:

“It's really unfair to you guys, but I think you’re discriminated against now … I would bet a large amount of money that the overwhelming majority of us would not look favorably on a company started by one of you.” — Investor gives closing keynote at Harvard Business School


I’ve read several articles in the last few months saying that the biggest thing holding college graduates back from starting their own businesses is… wait for it… college loan debt.

The rising mountain of student debt, recently closing in on $1.2 trillion, is forcing some entrepreneurs to abandon startup dreams…

Some academic experts say leftover loans are the biggest impediment to upstart entrepreneurship by those who recently received college or graduate degrees. “I mentor students all the time," says Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University Law School. "The single largest inhibitor to entrepreneurship is the student loans.” — Student Loan-Load Kills Start-Up Dreams

If student debt is a roadblock to economic opportunity, that really undermines a philosophy of how America has moved forward and prospered. — Millenials’ ball and chain: student loan debt

So your college degree creates a roadblock to your economic opportunity? Ouch again.

From the Harvard Business Review themselves:

A bachelor’s degree used to provide enough basic training to last a career. Yet today, the skills college graduates acquire during college have an expected shelf life of only five years… — Mind the (Skills) Gap

The Google tells me that average student loan debt is about $30,000 (and 70% of students graduate with debt) but that’s only the debt you walk away with — that’s not the cost of a college degree (remembering to factor in the opportunity cost of spending four or five years or more not working). Still, seems like you should get more than five years’ worth of knowledge for that kind of coin.

Paul Graham wrote about this way back in 2007:

It may not matter all that much where you go to college.

For me, as for a lot of middle class kids, getting into a good college was more or less the meaning of life when I was growing up. What was I? A student. To do that well meant to get good grades. Why did one have to get good grades? To get into a good college. And why did one want to do that? There seemed to be several reasons: you’d learn more, get better jobs, make more money. But it didn’t matter exactly what the benefits would be. College was a bottleneck through which all your future prospects passed; everything would be better if you went to a better college.

A few weeks ago I realized that somewhere along the line I had stopped believing that.

Either it won't help your kid get into Harvard, or if it does, getting into Harvard won't mean much anymore. And then I thought: how much does it mean even now?

It turns out I have a lot of data about that.

One of the most surprising things we’ve learned is how little it matters where people went to college.

I thought I’d already been cured of caring about that. There’s nothing like going to grad school at Harvard to cure you of any illusions you might have about the average Harvard undergrad. And yet Y Combinator showed us we were still overestimating people who’d been to elite colleges. We’d interview people from MIT or Harvard or Stanford and sometimes find ourselves thinking: they must be smarter than they seem. It took us a few iterations to learn to trust our senses.

Don’t you learn things at the best schools that you wouldn't learn at lesser places?

Apparently not. Obviously you can’t prove this in the case of a single individual, but you can tell from aggregate evidence: you can’t, without asking them, distinguish people who went to one school from those who went to another three times as far down the US News list. Try it and see.

How can this be? Because how much you learn in college depends a lot more on you than the college. A determined party animal can get through the best school without learning anything. And someone with a real thirst for knowledge will be able to find a few smart people to learn from at a school that isn’t prestigious at all.

[T]he great advantage of not caring where people went to college is not just that you can stop judging them (and yourself) by superficial measures, but that you can focus instead on what really matters. What matters is what you make of yourself. I think that’s what we should tell kids. Their job isn’t to get good grades so they can get into a good college, but to learn and do. And not just because that’s more rewarding than worldly success. That will increasingly be the route to worldly success. — Paul Graham

Our kids’ jobs aren’t to get good grades, but to learn and to do. That sounds right to me.

If this gives you the sads, I’m sorry — but I think it’s exciting. Things are changing. How we learn and how we work — it keeps on changing. As long as we’re up for it, and as long as our kids are, I think we’re all going to be fine.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, they will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

As we get ready for the 93rd year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable and mediocre factory-workers?

The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it? — Seth Godin, Back to (the wrong) School

In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer


Comment by Deirdre on February 28, 2014 at 05:45 PM

As always, interesting, Lori. The main upside, I had thought, in attending a top tier school was your peer group---being with like-minded or like-motivated do-ers and learners. They may never have been the reality, and the digital world has made proximity much less important, but where do you imagine new creatives finding their collaborators?

Also...so need a chat with you about Laurie Colwin over hot cocoa some day soon:)

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 28, 2014 at 06:30 PM


ooh, yes, laurie colwin chat! :D

that is a really interesting point about peers. where do *i* imagine new creatives finding their collaborators? online … and in self-formed communities locally…

it will be very interesting to see how things play out for our kids!

Comment by mckittre on February 28, 2014 at 08:12 PM

I do think the peer group thing is the main thing that needs replacing (totally doable, I think). I went to a fairly prestigious small liberal arts college, and do have a set of friends from there that have proved invaluable collaborators in our nonprofit and on various projects (as well as my husband!). I'm sure my kids will find those somewhere, though. I'm actually super happy to have very small kids right now, because I think the whole college paradigm might be very different by the time they get close to even thinking about it.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 28, 2014 at 09:19 PM

i think you’re right! i expect my kids (already teens) to be on the very leading edge of change.

Comment by amy21 on March 1, 2014 at 08:17 AM

I think people who want a peer group will find one, and those who don't won't, even at a prestigious school. I'm thinking of someone I know who went to an expensive Ivy League school but doesn't have a peer group from there. (Or a major that led to a job, either.) I'm not really still in contact with anyone I went to college with except my husband. I have found the most useful help (in terms of finding my way creatively and trying to create and sell product) online.

Comment by MirandaMiranda on February 28, 2014 at 10:18 PM

I too am glad my oldest is only 8 as it really feels like things are on the cusp right now. It feels almost impossible to even plan for the future! Of course it's always impossible to plan for the future, what am I saying...

What do you think of the new study that says college grads earn significantly more than non-graduates and are less likely to be unemployed or in poverty (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2014/02/SDT-higher-ed-FINAL-02-11-2... - hope that link works)? They were talking about it on NPR recently. Whenever I hear this kind of thing it always turns on my anxious button (despite already mentioned only eight year old child) so I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 1, 2014 at 08:33 AM


there is a study that shows that simply *applying* to a prestigious university is a marker for higher income. (i’ll add the link if i have time to look it up later.) in other words, the kind of people who think they can get into a school like that are the type of people who don’t need a school like that.

in the same way, i think that the people who don’t get a college degree and end up in poverty would probably not be doing well even if they had eked out a degree.

in the past fifty years, the type of people who were going to make a higher income all automatically went to college. so of course a college degree correlates with a higher income. the type of people who were going to take low-income jobs did not go to college. and the self-made man is the outlier.

now we’re in a situation where people are going to college and still ending up unemployed or under-employed. is this a turning point?

“The number of college graduates working minimum wage jobs is nearly 71 percent higher than it was a decade ago.” — here

More than 40 percent of recent U.S. college graduates are underemployed or need more training to get on a career track, a poll released on Tuesday showed.

The online survey of 1,050 workers who finished school in the past two years and 1,010 who will receive their degree in 2013 also found that many graduates, some heavily in debt because of the cost of their education, say they are in jobs that do not require a college degree. — here

In 2012, 36% of the nation’s young adults ages 18 to 31 — the so-called Millennial generation — were living in their parents’ home. — here

when i think about my own sons’ ability to achieve success on their own terms, i think about who they are and what they can do. if there’s a credential they need to pursue something they want to do, they’ll acquire it. being raised by two self-employed people in a lifestyle with a lot of freedom, they are (not unexpectedly) both ending up with a more independent bent. neither of them may opt for college — and i don’t worry about them a bit.

Comment by MirandaMiranda on March 1, 2014 at 10:43 PM

Thank you - I always find it hard to know what to think when statistics point in multiple directions - which they so often do! I think you are right that we need to focus on individuals rather than trying to align our actions by what numbers may or may not suggest. But it's still reassuring to have some numbers that support one's decision or plans, and also useful in conversation with those not so convinced...

Comment by amy21 on March 1, 2014 at 08:12 AM

so many thoughts. I always felt that by deciding against pursuing a "prestigious" Ivy League education, I wasn't "depriving" myself of anything more than a certain experience. I felt the education itself wasn't better or worse; I've always believed you get out of it what you put into it anyway. So is it worth it to go into years of serious debt for the "experience" of living an Ivy League life for four years? I obviously decided it was not, and I don't regret that. I've watched people hamstrung by debt, who have had to delay achieving certain goals because they were still paying for that experience long after it was over and done with.

this morning I'm thinking a lot about the hypocrisy of education, spurred by the latest standardized test scores. I am trying to figure out who, exactly, is the customer in the educational system. I think it's obvious it's not the kids. Is it future bosses? Parents? (The move to full-day kindergarten in our district certainly makes it look like parents are the customer.) Is it the companies who make the tests? I can't see any way in which taking a standardized test benefits my kid, but try to find an educator who is up front about how kids are just tools in this system. It boggles the mind that an organization that spends so much money is not forced to clearly delineate who it is serving and why.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 1, 2014 at 08:44 AM


I am trying to figure out who, exactly, is the customer in the educational system. I think it's obvious it's not the kids.

it’s “society,” right?

we are supposed to turn out educated people who can fill jobs and spend their paycheck purchasing goods and services, keeping the big machine going.

we’re supposed to turn out people ready to participate in a democratic society, too — i don’t know how we’re doing there.

the testing companies are definitely benefiting. full-day kindergarten benefits business as much as parents — because then parents can keep working full-time.

I can't see any way in which taking a standardized test benefits my kid, but try to find an educator who is up front about how kids are just tools in this system.

i actually know quite a few teachers who would be up front about that. although maybe not in mixed company.

Comment by Sara on March 1, 2014 at 10:35 PM

I've long suspected that full day kindergarten (a terrible idea, imo) is partially on the agenda because of free school lunches. They are serious around here (and we don't have a ton of dependency out in the burbs) about the free lunches. They promote the heck out of them - I can see how they're happy to, and even feel and obligation to, extend them as far as possible.

They say public education is important to the functioning of a democracy to have an educated populace, etc. - but that doesn't make a lot of sense. We let people vote regardless of their education status, and we're not even allowed to require a literacy test, so why fool ourselves that we're trying to educate the public? Neither the government nor the party in the minority displays any interest in actually educating anyone about the issues or the state of the nation; they just advertise, like food companies and pharmaceutical companies and car companies do.

We don't need educated people to fill jobs - we need jobs that don't require extensive education, but we sent all those away for a buck or two (made by the corporations, saved by us) and for disposable goods. I agree that that's the bill of goods we're sold re: college, though.

I think education will be the next big bubble, and we'll be saying to each other, "why did people pay $100,000 for a useless degree that will never allow the repayment of the loan?" the way we say now, "why did people pay so much for houses they couldn't afford?" regarding the housing bubble.

Comment by Sara on March 1, 2014 at 10:26 PM

First, of course colleges are saying they're turning out students ready to enter the work force. They're selling something (a very expensive education, generally), so what else would they say?

Second, too many people go to college. Partly this is because the manufacturing base has eroded as companies have taken jobs overseas (and we as a nation have been happy to pay less for products that were produced with low-wage labor, either here (illegal immigrants, largely) or abroad. But at any rate, we just don't need as many sociology, psychology, English, women's studies, etc. etc. degrees as people are getting.

Plus, the government subsidizes the cost (by making low or no interest loans), so prices are encouraged to skyrocket - there's no pressure on the buying side for lower prices, because no one is actually paying for college - the government is just printing money/adding debt, and my generation is graduating with mortgages worth of college debt. You used to be able to work your way through college, no more.

The education you get at a normalish (and to some extent, a top-tier) school these days you can get on your own if you're motivated; the one thing you can't get is the peer group. Remember that lady who told her daughter's class at Princeton that the main value and goal of going to a school like that was to get a husband, and the sooner the better? Not too far from the truth, in a way.

I used to work for a standardized testing company grading writing essays and reading tests (the ACT all the way down to 3rd grade reading) - when you ask who the customer is, it's technically the government (that is to say, all of us), as it's we who pay the third party to make and administer the tests. Who benefits? Well, the testing company makes a *bundle*, the government presumably gains information on which schools are doing well and poorly. Is it worth all the trouble and expense? I don't think so, but evidently more than half the country thinks we have money to burn...

Comment by Adina on March 4, 2014 at 12:50 AM

I agree with everything in this post. I have $30k of debt (hubs has $40) and I would wager my skills are still good, but I'm not in my trained field anymore. (Stage management doesn't change much or very fast). I went to a state U, as a non-traditional student. And I'm glad I did. But then I was looking for something and shopped wisely. :-) I want my girls to do what they need to to get where they want to go, be it college or not. My heart has a harder time with them not going to college, my sister and I were the first in our families, on either side to get a college degree. It was an accomplishment. And it still is a marker for me. But I can't see saddling them with that much debt and time if they don't actively want it.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 4, 2014 at 08:26 AM


same for being the first to get a college degree — how swiftly things change!

in the most general way, i think we’ve seen that kids who are pushed or coerced into taking a particular path aren’t going to put their full effort into it, and if they aren’t fully invested, they probably aren’t going to be one of the people who can turn that degree into a great career.

in the most basic way, i think more parents need to help their kids follow their own interests and desires. if they’re 18 or 19, it’s awfully late to be having that conversation. i tweeted this article this morning:


and in it, a parent takes the SAT to try to coerce her son into studying for it, then tries to sign her *teen* kids up for surprise math tutoring in the summer — which infuriates them.

the idea of a parent manhandling her *teen* children — young adults, really — this way really makes me shake my head. why does her son not want to take the SAT? what do her children want to do with their lives? these are conversations you need to have so much earlier.

Comment by Adina on March 4, 2014 at 10:23 AM

I fully agree. As usual. ;)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 4, 2014 at 10:32 AM


Comment by Ashley on March 6, 2014 at 06:34 PM

Unfortunately more and more companies refuse to hire people who don't have a bachelors.

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