on college education, snake oil, and Silicon Valley

My readers and students know my skepticism about the financial, or human capital, “value” of college education (December 12th, 2012; April 18th, 2013).  And they know I quote a lot of “anecdotal evidence,” including from my immediate family.

My point of departure often was a column by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who echoed academic arguments, often from economists, about this very value.  This of course has been powerfully amplified by national politicians, cheered by universities dependent on student loan guarantees.

So it may interesting to wonder about the possibility that the conversation about college is entering a new phase.

For Friedman is now being educated by Google and he is wondering about what Google is doing might lead:

LAST June, in an interview with Adam Bryant of The Times, Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams. At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer. (How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2: April 19 2014)

Leo Schwartz, a student editorialist in the Columbia Spectator (the student paper for the university), recently echoed this:

Something like over 90 percent of people from my public high school went to a four-year college. Obviously, this is miles away from what the norm is in the United States, but the reality is that attending college and getting a bachelor’s degree has become the standard. (April 20, 2014)

The same wonder has now become a conceit for the latest new HBO series “Silicon Valley,” which might also be called: “What does it take, and what are the consequences, of authoring a new compression algorythm.”  In the first episode the (anti?-)hero (or dark angel of temptation) says (around minute 8:45 into the episode):

College has become a cruel expensive joke on the poor and the middle class that benefits only the perpetrator of it the bloated administrators … a system that churns out unemployed debtors and provides dubious value.

He is interrupted by an older white bearded man who says:

you are a dangerous man … spewing ignorance … the true value of a college education is intangible.

The anti-hero has the last word:

The true value of snake oil is intangible.

Of course, I am with the professor who walks out of the lecture hall yelling “fascist!” (Even though I could be interpreted as making the same point as the speaker). The true value of a college education is precisely “intangible” (that is, its value is not monetary), and the economists who price it as “10% over total career earnings” (as if they could predict what will happen in 2050) should be heckled with “capitalists!,” “neo-liberals!”.

But, of course, exchanging insults is not useful.  Figuring out what current constraints make possible, what is emerging, and what new constraints it might produce (including a new “gap” between men and women college graduates), is our task as anthropologists.

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