Paul Graham, Y Combinator And The Future Of Credentialing

library credntials new learning paradigms

Paul Graham has another thought provoking essay this month titled, After Credentials

I am going to quote extensively from Paul’s article (italics) and then add my own thoughts after each paragraph (non-italics).

A few months ago I read a New York Times article on South Korean cram schools that said, “Admission to the right university can make or break an ambitious young South Korean”

A parent added: “In our country, college entrance exams determine 70 to 80% of a person’s future.”

This is a real problem, not simply due to a reliance on tests, but due to a lack of alternative opportunities being acceptable ways to produce success. In many regards America’s cultural insistence that money = success is *good* because it allows multiple acceptable channels for achieving success. I heard Joi Ito speak last month and  he alluded to a similar notion. The best and brightest in Asia do not pursue entrepreneurship. Culturally entrepreneurship is not looked upon favorably like it is here in America; possibly because success is viewed differently. While this philosophy is beginning to change, any change will be slow.

The course of people’s lives in the US now seems to be determined less by credentials and more by performance than it was 25 years ago.

I see this differently. Credentials matter less, true, but only in the sense that wealth has become a more outright enabler of future prospects/successes. As a society we’ve cut through the middle man, or the guise that an ivy league education is a ‘level-playing field’ credential. I know more finance dudes who were lacrosse players from wealthy families but who attended mediocre schools than I do Ivy Leaguers who scored 1600’s on their SAT’s and didn’t own a car in high school. Elite colleges are not about buying credentials, they are about buying access. Big difference.

Where you go to college still matters, but not like it used to. The use of credentials was an attempt to seal off the direct transmission of power between generations, and cram schools represent that power finding holes in the seal. Cram schools turn wealth in one generation into credentials in the next.

Again, I would agree but for different reasons — see above. I’d argue your high school trumps college here in America. Korea is still trying to veil entitlement to the wealthy through the mask of ‘fair’ academic credentials. The acceptance and reverie shown to entrepreneurs in America has sped up our same transition

History suggests that, all other things being equal, a society prospers in proportion to its ability to prevent parents from influencing their children’s success directly. It’s a fine thing for parents to help their children indirectly…[but the] problem comes when parents use direct methods: when they are able to use their own wealth or power as a substitute for their children’s qualities.

Agreed, but an even worse problem (which we may not know the full extent of yet) is parents who feel/felt compelled to leverage wealth and power to buy credentials they could not afford. While we read extensively about our massive levels of consumer debt being attributable to credit cards and the housing market, tuition is likely as big a debt-contributor for the middle class. I hope elite Asian schools aren’t seeing the same types of tuition increases we have seen here.

The obvious way to solve the problem is to make credentials better. If the tests a society uses are currently hackable, we can study the way people beat them and try to plug the holes.

See above. The problem is not one of making tests ‘better’ or an issue between generations. It’s a problem of a concentration of opportunity (and access) among a minority that also is responsible for re-distributing that opportunity. Yes, “credentials” and “performance” can buy you a foot-in-the-door, but…

Now companies increasingly have to pay employees market price for the work they do….Countries worried about their competitiveness are right to be concerned about the number of startups started within them. But they would do even better to examine the underlying principle. Do they let energetic young people get paid market rate for the work they do? …Even if your colleagues were impressed by your credentials, they’d soon be parted from you if your performance didn’t match, because the company would go out of business and the people would be dispersed.

I absolutely agree that small companies with greater transparency are helping shift power to those who perform best. This in turn levels the playing field.

In a world of small companies, performance is all anyone cares about. People hiring for a startup don’t care whether you’ve even graduated from college, let alone which one. All they care about is what you can do. Which is in fact all that should matter, even in a large organization.

True, but often the key people involved with startups are ‘performing’ based on opportunities or a rolodex not afforded equally to all. The guy or gal who produces the best algorythm still needs to sell it, market it and maybe get it funded. Such activities are best done with social capital and other assets I believe to be more correlated to wealth than to fair performance

—This is a great, thought provoking piece worthy of some attention


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