Epistemic Status: Beset on all sides by Moloch

Imagine a high school where the only goal was to get into college. You attend classes only insofar as they look shiny on your transcript; you’re spending every waking moment optimizing extracurriculars for “well-roundedness” and getting A++s.  You constantly compete to get the highest score on a random Spanish test halfway through the semester, and you severely judge anyone who has even the tiniest bit of slack to hang out with their friends or start a project whose purpose is something besides looking good on a resume. This is the dark ideal of perfect competition, where anything deviating from a total focus on college admissions is destroyed by the supplicants of Moloch.

I would argue that this isn’t very far from the high schools we have now. The “good” high schools; the ones in New York, the Bay Area, and right next door to MIT; these high schools contain some of the brightest, most talented high schoolers in the country—and are hopelessly distorted by their status as “feeder” schools for the Big Important Colleges.

People have paid $1.5 million, not to get their child into college, but instead to get college admissions advice. Someone paid four times the cost of an entire college education for their kid, to sit with a woman in a room for thirty hours and have her explain how to get into Ivies. From an economic perspective, they sure seem to be behaving like the expected lifetime value of this credential is worth a lot more than $1.5 million. And this isn't even counting the families that pay $40 million to get their kids into Harvard through the back door.

So why is college admissions such a massive industry? Why is it that otherwise-intelligent high school students spend this much time on college, and assign arbitrarily large amounts of status to it? Why is it that, when people hear about high-school-aged Olympic winners, the first thing they say is not “wow, this person is the fastest person alive”, but rather, “she’s going to have a great college application”? 

College is weird, in a way that warps traditional high school students’ lives pretty strongly. Barring exceptional circumstance, you only get to apply once, which makes a 4% acceptance rate terrifying. Even the most selective real-world jobs aren’t this bad: Jane Street has an acceptance rate an order-of-magnitude lower, but if you don’t get in, you can just try again. Whereas if you don’t get into Harvard, that’s basically it—you could try to take a gap year and reapply, but you’ve already poisoned the well.

Moreover, colleges don’t really have career-track specialization - basically every top student applies to the top colleges. This means that if you’re a Harvard student, the non-Harvard people you meet probably got rejected by Harvard, further contributing to the status glow of these universities.

On top of this, universities as institutions have wildly outsized power in society. Because they have a stranglehold on research—with basically all research being done by either universities or the government—running in “highbrow” circles means you’re always hearing about Stanford, Harvard, or MIT. Point in fact, you can probably name the universities that Mark Zuckerburg or Larry Page dropped out of, just by guessing. This is fucking wild. If you worked at Google once, this is cool but drops off after a few years—if you went to Harvard, this stays with you literally forever. And the opposite is also true; if you went to Pretty Decent State School #24, then you didn’t go to Harvard.

I think most of the ink that has been spilled about how ‘Harvard is a dumb signaling game’ misses the point. I think that this is the core fact about why people assign so much value and status to universities—they’re a one-shot game, and if you fail, it’s over. College is useful because, when you go to a college, you can signal that you went there for the rest of your life.  And if you have the money, it actually plausibly is the optimal choice for you to spend $1.5 million getting in.

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27 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:52 AM
[-]leogao1y2125

Counterpoint: in the circles I'm in, people rarely care which university you went to. Where you work(ed) and what specifically you do seem to have much higher importance.

What circles are those?

AI research engineers in the Bay Area.

More generally, in the Bay Area tech scene traditional credentials matter less than which companies/teams/projects you've been on.

in my case, software engineering.

If you worked at Google once, this is cool but drops off after a few years—if you went to Harvard, this stays with you literally forever.

I would say exactly the opposite.

When looking at a CV I don't give two hoots what university you went to, unless you don't have a single relevant work experience.

However if you ever worked for any of the big famous tech companies, I'd almost certainly give you an interview.

If anyone here has attended a top university, was the effort to get in worth it to you (in retrospect)?

For me the answer is yes, but my situation is quite non-central. I got into MIT since I was a kid from a small rural town with really good grades, really good test scores, and was on a bunch of sports teams. Because I was from a small rural town and was pretty smart, none of this required special effort other than being on sports teams (note: being on the teams required no special skill as everyone who tried out made the team given small class size). The above was enough to get me an admission probably for reasons of diversity I'm a white man but I'm fairly certain I got a bonus to my application for being from a small rural town.

Counterfactuals are hard, but going to MIT probably helped me to get into a prestigious medical school, leading to my current position as a doctor at a prestigious hospital. People at least pretend to be impressed when somewhat tells them that I went to MIT, despite my undergraduate field of study having absolutely nothing to do with my current job. Since I was lucky enough to be able to attend the university by doing the things I would have done anyway, I'd certainly say the effort was worth it.

[-]cata1y2-1

I got into MIT since I was a kid from a small rural town with really good grades, really good test scores, and was on a bunch of sports teams. Because I was from a small rural town and was pretty smart, none of this required special effort other than being on sports teams (note: being on the teams required no special skill as everyone who tried out made the team given small class size).

You say that, but getting really good grades in high school sounds like thousands of hours of grunt work, with very marginal benefit outside college admissions. Maybe it's what you would have done anyway, but I don't think it's what most teenagers would prefer to be doing.

I'm actually quite nonplussed by the disagree votes because I thought, if anything, my comment was too obvious to bother saying!

FWIW, for most people who are smart enough to get into MIT, it's reasonably trivial to get good grades in high school (I went to an unusually difficult high school, took the hardest possible courseload, and was able to shunt this to <5 hours of Actual Work a week / spent most of my class time doing more useful things). 

I have this sense people live in dark matter universes, where some social groups at uni talk to each other about the slog all the time, and some social groups talk about all the fun stuff they do with all of their extra the time. And these can both be true, just that they forget about each other. 

Like, me and my roommate at Uni both came from the same high-school. He had such an easy time he started doing math research in undergrad. I had a horrible time and barely graduated. There's both types. (I'd say he had a notably easier time at high-school than me too — well, I think he actually did much harder courses and got higher grades, so not easier exactly, but you see what I mean.)

My current guess is most people do a ton of work while at top unis and that it's optimized for having that effect, but that the people who do best are the peak IQ folks who find it easy.

This seems wrong to me? Hard to say because it was so long ago but I imagine I spent at least 15 hours a week on homework. I went to a basically normal public high school, and while most of the work wasn't hard for me (varying between mindnumbingly easy and moderately challenging), there was just so much of it that it took a ton of time. Sure I wasn't 'working smart', and I was a perfectionist to an unreasonable level, and I cared too much about what my teachers thought of me, but I imagine none of those things are unusual for kids trying to get into good schools.

That's fair, I guess that's more like hundreds of hours and I was thinking of more typical students when I suggested thousands.

In my particular case it wasn't really all that hard. I went to an extremely small school so classes weren't tracked the way they might be at a larger school. Since I was much better at taking tests than my peers I didn't really have to study to get A's on tests. We didn't even have all that much homework, though I guess it probably was hundreds of hours over the course of my high school career. I would have had to do that regardless though.

No. I would wake up early to do homework, spend 8 to 10 hours at school (and often do homework during class), and then go home and do more homework. Looking back I got a lot more value out of my non-school activities and hobbies than I did out of doing homework, but there was just so little time for anything else. I was constantly stressed about missing deadlines and usually extremely tired. Meanwhile when my husband was in high school he did zero homework and actually did things in the world like building a house and starting a startup, which seems way better to me.

And then my top university was a miserable place where I learned nothing and didn't even make any useful connections, and just suffered for four years while my parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for it, and THEN it turned out that ~all of the jobs I've ever had, including my first job out of college, I got based on performing well on work tests, which I could absolutely still have done if I'd gone to some small liberal arts school. No one has even asked to see my resumé since 2019 and all of my work has been completely unrelated to my degree.

tl;dr school is a scam don't fucking go don't do it stay the fuck away

I think so, yes? I found one of my great collaborators in life there, and I don't think I would have found a collaborator of a similar calibre at other universities. It was also a place with opportunity for me to build a great conference as a side-project, which depended on the prestige of the place and the fact that a few key orgs were based around that uni. (I went to Oxford Uni; FHI and CEA were there.)

I am not a hard worker in general, and didn't work that hard to get there, having a certain level of base IQ was pretty key for me.

Obviously everything the university had me do (or 'taught me') was a waste of time, but it was a schelling coordination place for smart and talented and prestige-seeking people. 

Added: Not going to uni would also have been a very poor choice for me, I really damn care about immigration access to the US, and a technical degree is basically critical for me to have that.

Not exactly your question, but I did poorly in a state university, and dropped out after two years.  I figure it cost me a decade of support and ancillary jobs before I fully self-educated in CS fundamentals and started my career as a professional software developer.  

I've since been quite involved in hiring for large tech companies, and it's clear that a degree from a top-20 school is far better than from a random one, which is better than no degree, in terms of likelihood of being taken seriously as a junior applicant.  It takes 5-10 years of employment before it becomes irrelevant.

Questions of "worth the effort" are very hard to answer, because it's impossible to know the counterfactuals.  On a purely financial and comfort level, it'd have been worth the effort for me to have done better in school, and actually graduated, preferably from a better school.  But that's mostly because it's easy to discount the cost to past-me of doing so.  In fact, I didn't and maybe couldn't.

it's clear that a degree from a top-20 school is far better than from a random one, which is better than no degree, in terms of likelihood of being taken seriously as a junior applicant.

Does this also apply to value (to the company) conditional on hiring?

Does this also apply to value (to the company) conditional on hiring?

To some extent, yes.  Graduates from impressive schools seem to have a headstart at being professional contributors to their team.  It's a smaller effect than in hiring because there's a lot more behavioral and individual variance in the path to valuable employee, and it's less visible because, after hire, schooling isn't much discussed.  But it's still somewhat noticeable, which means it's larger than one might think.

Which is as expected - it's a time-tested, repeatable, hard-to-fake signal.  The fact that it's painful and really sucks for those who don't successfully pursue it is irrelevant to the fact that it is correlated to this dimension of fitness.

I would think no, but "conditional on hiring" is doing a lot more work than it looks there. Just like there is (supposedly, I haven't checked) no correlation between height and scoring among NBA players. But that doesn't mean that height isn't a big asset in the NBA!

[-]gjm1y40

I'm not sure whether this counts: I went to the University of Cambridge, which is (especially for mathematics, which is what I studied there) probably the best university in the UK, with a worldwide reputation, but unlike top US universities it doesn't charge enormous fees. And I didn't put any particular effort into having a vast range of impressive extracurricular activities, I was just very good at mathematics. So the costs for me were very different from those for someone attending, say, Harvard. (Also, this was 30+ years ago, when even Harvard was much cheaper than now.)

Anyway: yes, definitely worth it for me. I went there to learn a lot of mathematics, and that's what I did; some of the people who taught me were world-class mathematicians (though it will probably surprise no one to learn that being a world-class mathematician does not imply being a world-class teacher of mathematics); a lot of the people around me were super-smart or super-interesting or both. (Also, and not to be neglected, I made some good friends there and did a bunch of other enjoyable things, but that would probably have been much the same at any other university.) And, though it wasn't particularly why I chose to go there, I'm pretty sure it was good for my career -- though for obvious reasons it's hard to disentangle.

Yes. Some of that was luck, but I think the number of things you'd have to change before my limited strategy ability was better applied outside college than in was very high. But I do wish that long list of things had been different.

They're not 1-shot games.

You can fail out of college, go to a community college, get good grades, and then transfer to a state college.

You can also skip the part where you fail out of college.

You can then take the LSATs, get a really good score, and quite possibly get accepted into an Ivy League law school, from which you can then drop out. No life optimization needed! I think LSAT scores greatly outweigh every other factor when it comes to law school admissions.

Or get a postgrauate degree.

I don't see the tie to game theory or one-shot decision making that the title promises.  The fact that it's an important (even though we wish it weren't) branching for each student doesn't make it interesting in terms of game theory.

Ivy league colleges: the game that you win before the game begins.

[+][comment deleted]1y-30