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Why Most Employers Shouldn’t Worry About Where You Go to College, Neither Should You

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As an employer, I no longer think it matters all that much where our employees went to college. It’s a misleading indicator.

Sure, when someone goes to a top school, there’s a signaling effect that they’re smart. If you’re curing cancer, every IQ point probably matters. We’re not curing cancer. We run a venture capital fund and a political consulting firm.

We need intelligent employees, but once they have the baseline intelligence needed to do the job, there are half a dozen traits that are far better predictors of their performance: street smarts, hustle, instincts, communication skills, character, work ethic, and ability to fail and keep going.

Live your experiences, don’t learn them.

So if you’re either a young person thinking about your career or a parent worrying about your kids’ prospects, my advice is to spend less time focused on the U.S. News ranking of wherever you went (or are going) to school and a lot more collecting experiences that can demonstrate all of the other skills we need you to actually have.

In fact, the easier you’ve had it, the less interesting we find you. If you’ve had everything handed to you since birth, no matter your GPA, those first few times you struggle are going to be extra hard (and sooner or later, everyone struggles). By making the “safe” choice when hiring and just choosing people from the best schools, I’m also buying all of their initial inability to process failure and handle rejection.

In our line of work, we fail all of the time — you can’t take meaningful risk and succeed every step of the way. When you fail, I need you back on the horse, back behind the wheel, back at the free throw line, back in the batter’s box and every other cliché about rebounding quickly and getting back to work.

We don’t have the time or patience for people to mature on the job.

Goes for grad school too.

This doesn’t just apply to college either. I’m not sure hiring employees with graduate degrees even makes sense. You’re paying both for their degree and for the two to three years they lost in real world work experience while getting their degree.

If having that specific education is essential to doing a specific job, of course grad school makes sense. If you want to be a surgeon, you need to go to medical school. If you want to prosecute criminals, then you need a law degree. 

But if you’re trying to assess whether or not a founder has what it takes to bring a startup from concept to reality, is business school really going to help you do that? Unlikely. If you’re trying to determine whether an industry is ripe for disruption, you’re better off learning that through practice, not in a classroom.

On the political side of our work, if you’re trying to block the passage of new online travel taxes in twelve different states, does having a public policy degree in any way make you better equipped to run the campaign? No.

We run campaigns of all kinds at every level of government and there’s not a single campaign we’ve ever run — whether for a corporate giant like Walmart or Comcast or a startup like Uber or Lemonade or a foundation like Rockefeller or Bloomberg — where having studied the theory of politics would have been helpful.

You know what is helpful? Having worked on actual political campaigns. Having worked in city or state government or on the Hill. Having actually done something, not just studied something.

Practicing what you preach

As a parent, I’m sure when our kids are older and thinking about college, all of the conventional wisdom, vicarious living and competitive instincts will kick in and I’ll want them to go to the best ranked school possible. But I really hope not.

There’s always the instinct to grab the best credentials we can and secure as much external validation as possible. That’s natural. It’s also frequently counterproductive in the workplace.

In around six years when our daughter applies to college, will I rue the day I wrote this column? Probably. But if I do, it’s because I failed to put aside my own ego and recognize the world as I live it and see it — and not because my faith in the conventional hierarchy of higher education was suddenly restored.

Hopefully what I practice in my business turns out to be the same as what I preach when it comes to my own kids.

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