Where You Go to College Just Doesn’t Matter

Bradley Tusk


A few weeks ago, around 25 students from the Princeton Student Entrepreneurs club came to my office to talk about what working in venture capital is like. It was probably the worst meeting they’ve ever had. Admittedly, I walked into the meeting in a bad mood for reasons having nothing to do with them. While what I said to them might have been a little harsher than necessary, it reflects exactly what I deeply believe to be true: where you go to college just doesn’t matter.

One of the students asked me what career advice I give my own kids. It was a good question. I told them that I have a daughter in the 11th grade going through the college process. She’s touring campus tours this week. And my advice to her has been that where you go to school makes no difference whatsoever.

They were horrified. Clearly no one had ever said anything like this to any of them And I get it. Their entire lives have been dedicated to getting into a school like Princeton. Their identity now revolves around feeling special because they go to Princeton and believing that their future will be better because they went to Princeton. And here’s this guy, doing a job that they aspire to, telling them that all of their hard work to date means essentially nothing. They probably hated me — and I don’t blame them. But for their own good, like it or not, it’s a message someone should have told them years ago — a message that kids would be a lot better off hearing than that their entire future depends on what number their college is ranked on an arbitrary list.

There’s been a spate of articles and podcasts recently in the New Yorker, the Ringer, the New York Times and other outlets making the case that not only where you go to college simply doesn’t matter, but that the students who put enormous pressure on themselves to get into the highest status colleges often ended up both heavily in debt, and, years later, are not even able to identify tangible benefits from going to a top college.

One of the Princeton students did challenge my argument. She said that obviously it matters where you go to school because I went to a top college and a top law school and that clearly got me to where I am today. Later that day, I thought about what she said. Maybe she was right. Maybe it did matter more than I realized. So I did an inventory of every job and major opportunity I’ve had since graduating college to see if having gone to Penn for college or the University of Chicago for law school had anything to do with whatever success I’ve had. Here’s what I found.

NYC Parks Department (Spokesperson) — While the guy I worked for did care a lot about academic prestige, I got the job because I proved myself during a summer internship by working around the clock and, for a kid still in college, by producing results (the internship was a program run by the City of New York called the Government Scholars program that was definitely not based on where you went to college; and I found out about them from my work at City Hall for the mayor of Philadelphia while I was in college, a job that I got by showing up at City Hall and asking to see the Mayor and impressing him with my ballsy naivete). So no, where I went to school didn’t matter much here.

NYC Parks Department (Senior Advisor to the Commissioner) — I graduated law school, didn’t want to practice law and really didn’t want to work at a big law firm. Despite having a lot of student debt, I went back to Parks at a fifth of the salary Kirkland and Ellis offered me. Henry Stern, the Parks Commissioner, wanted me back because I produced for him my first time around. He figured I could do it again. Had I never gone to law school, I would have ended up with exactly the same opportunity. So it didn’t matter there either.

US Senator Chuck Schumer’s Office (Communications Director) — Chuck does care a lot about academic prestige. He went to Harvard for college and law school and it means a lot to him (as does his perfect SAT score). So perhaps the schools I went to helped a bit when he was considering whom to hire. But for anyone who knows Chuck, you know he cares more about getting press than anything else in the world. He hired me because of what he saw me do at the Parks Department (specifically substituting a roll of toilet paper for a ribbon at a ceremony to open a new bathroom in East River Park) and because of the creativity I displayed on the homework assignment he gave me. Chuck never, ever would have harmed his chances of getting attention just because his comms person went to good schools. So if it helped, it was at the margins.

City of New York (Special Advisor to Mayor Bloomberg) — I got the job because I had friends in the Bloomberg administration who had either worked with me before or were friends with people who had. They hired me because they felt like I could add a different perspective to the office, not because of where I went to school. Mike has no idea where I went to college or law school. And Mike made his fortune by bucking conventional wisdom in the first place. So no impact there.

State of Illinois (Deputy Governor) — I got the job because: (a) I had particular skill sets — comms, operations, policy — that the Governor needed; (b) it was a career making job meaning I’d put up with almost anything; and (c) because, in this particular case, since I worked for a guy in Rod Blagojevich who ended up getting sentenced to 14 years in jail for corruption, bringing in a 29-year old New Yorker was a way to have someone run the state without them knowing or getting in the way of any of his corrupt schemes (the one time he slipped up and asked me to help, I reported him and testified against him at his trial). I do think that having worked for Bloomberg and Schumer helped me get the job. And having gone to law school in Illinois at least gave me some connection to the state, but politically, it would have been better had I gone to the University of Illinois rather than the University of Chicago. So little benefit there, if any.

Lehman Brothers (Senior Vice President) — I got the job because my boss, a wonderful guy named Ron Stack, had spent a decade working at high levels of politics, he saw the potential around my idea to build a practice around privatizing state lotteries, and he understood how hard it is to run a government like I did in Illinois. Ron knows politics and knew that academic pedigree in this case just didn’t matter. Now, I do think that Ron was an anomaly in this case. The one area where your academic pedigree does matter are a handful of very linear, traditional careers in heavily laddered industries like law, investment banking and management consulting. So if being a partner at McKinsey or Wachtell or Goldman is your only goal in life, then go to the most prestigious school you can. But for a career in virtually anything else, it’s irrelevant.

Bloomberg for Mayor (Campaign Manager) — I got the job because of Mike’s direct experience working with me and then seeing the additional skills I developed in the succeeding years. In politics especially, where you go to school really does not matter (arguably, going to schools in environments that completely coddle you end up making you too soft to succeed in politics).

Tusk Strategies (Founder/ former CEO) — When you start a business with no clients, no resources and just one employee, academic pedigree means very little (you can’t eat prestige). The reason we succeeded is not because of any networks I had from school. It was because I hustled and then I hired more and more talented people who did the same, over and over again. We continue to hire talented people all of the time and the one thing we never care about or value at all is where applicants went to college (in fact, our now CEO left college to work for Mike Bloomberg in 2001 and never went back). I will say, however, that Bob Greenlee, Tusk Holdings’ COO and one of my top partners over the past decade in almost anything interesting we’ve ever done, did go to law school with me so I guess that chalks one up for the other side.

Tusk Venture Partners (co-Founder/ CEO) — Same as above. Raising our first fund was insanely difficult and in the nearly 200 (mostly fruitless) meetings we had asking people for money, I don’t think the topic of where my partner Jordan or I went to college or graduate school came up even once. And now that we’re investing out of three different funds and about to raise a fourth, it matters even less. Far more importantly, we invest millions of dollars in early stage technology companies often run by people in their 20s or 30s. I never ask where they went to school. It doesn’t go in our Investment Committee Memo. It doesn’t come up in diligence. It simply doesn’t matter.

Tusk Philanthropies (Founder/ CEO) — Obviously when it’s your money, only your judgment matters in the first place. But in the work we’ve done on mobile voting, on childhood hunger and on making abortion medication available via telemedicine, whatever gains we’ve made on each issue never was dependent on where I went to school. Nor do I know where the people who run each of those initiatives went to school (although Bob does oversee all of them).

P&T Knitwear (Founder/ Owner) — People like my bookstore because it’s fun, we’re new and independent, we stock good titles, we’re the only podcast studio that’s free for anyone to use, we let authors and our Lower East Side neighbors use the event space for free, we serve good coffee and because the store looks really cool. The story behind the funny name is about my grandparents surviving the Holocaust, living in refugee camps, eventually making their way to New York and opening a tiny sweater store on the Lower East Side called P&T Knitwear. In every meeting we’ve ever had with anyone about building the store or running it, where I went to school never once came up.

Adjunct Professor (Columbia Business School) — If any job should care about where you went to school, it should be this one. But when Columbia’s leadership asked me to teach a few years ago, none of their reasons involved my academic pedigree. They knew that we created a new and niche form of venture capital combining tech and politics. They knew I wrote an interesting book about it. They knew that I’d have a unique perspective to offer and because of my years in politics, I was probably a good talker. The class is called the Economics and Politics of Disruption and not a single skill we teach is dependent on the academic abilities of my students; what we care about is accessing and inspiring their street smarts, their instincts, their sales and communications skills and a bunch of other things that are usually not valued by high prestige academic institutions.

Writer/ Podcaster — I write columns regularly for FastCompany, the New York Daily News and a bunch of other publications, totalling around 30–40 per year. I wrote a memoir in 2018 called The Fixer. I have a novel coming out this October called Obvious in Hindsight. And I host a podcast called Firewall that airs a new episode twice weekly. The memoir is probably the best input here. The only story in there relevant to where I went to school was how I crashed Ed Rendell’s office at City Hall in Philadelphia to ask for a job because I happened to go to school in Philly. So no impact, nor has any reader or listener ever asked a question that had anything to do with where I went to school. We have a few other ventures too in the casino space, the Gotham Book Prize, and RunnerUp Media. Same thing on all three (especially in casinos).

So the upshot is the Princeton student was wrong. Whatever success I’ve had is due to a lot of luck, a lot of help from some very generous people, and a decent amount of risk taking and hard work on my end — not because of where I went to school. It just hasn’t mattered.

Tomorrow, my daughter and I embark on our trip to look at colleges in Boston and DC. I’m extremely proud of her. Not because of where she might go to school (we’re not even looking at the high ranking ones in either city) — but because she truly understands that all that matters in her choice of college is finding a place that has a culture she likes, people she finds interesting, courses she finds exciting and is a city she’d like to live in for a few years. She genuinely does not care about a school’s ranking, prestige or what anyone else thinks about it (including her parents). She’s focused solely on whether or not that particular campus appeals to her. I couldn’t be prouder.



Bradley Tusk

Venture capitalist, political strategist, philanthropist and writer.