Most parents in the United States (and the whole world, really) would love to go to a dinner party and utter the words, “My kid is starting school at Stanford this fall.” Quite an impressive reputation for a small private school in a quiet Bay Area suburb—but Stanford’s changing culture means it isn’t the same university it was in the past.
Let’s learn a little bit about Stanford.
Leland Stanford Jr. University
President Herbert Hoover was a part of Stanford’s “pioneer” graduating class in 1895. In the modern era, we revere Stanford graduates as world class leaders. Distinct from Hoover’s presidential leadership, we observe Stanford grads serving as leaders of a different type of institution: tech startups.
Stanford’s Big Three: Google, Instagram, and OpenAI
Merriam-Webster engraved Google’s influence into our society by defining the word Google as a verb. Google started in a lab on Stanford University’s campus, where Larry Page and Sergey Brin began to build the page rank algorithm. On their quest to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” the pair built a product that changed the world.
Quite a few years later, Google hired an intern named Kevin Systrom off Stanford’s campus. He quit his internship, supposedly, because the lack of a computer science degree prevented him from becoming an associate product manager. Kevin then went on to launch an app that a few of you might have heard of: Instagram.
Stanford has a habit of churning out startup founders and investors: Sam Altman, Peter Theil, Phil Knight, and many more. Do we expect the school to continue its legacy going forward?
Stanford’s Changing Student Life and Startup Culture
The Stanford Review released an op-ed about Stanford’s changing culture, which no longer focuses on startups. Author Ginevra Davis paints a picture of Stanford that looks past the prestige and into the daily life and culture of the school.
Because of Google, Instagram, and Open AI, many people see Stanford as a magical place where great ideas are born. Davis argues that this may have been the case 5-10 years ago, but today’s Stanford students are more concerned with landing the esteemed six-figure starting salary at a FANG company. Today’s Cardinals throw “Entrepreneur” in their LinkedIn bio simply because it’ll help them land that sweet SWE gig. Davis goes on to explain how a larger chunk of students are going down the safer, well-charted path of corporate America.
What if I don’t want to be a startup founder? Is Stanford a good place for me? Davis argues that it may not be. She wrote a more general piece for Palladium Magazine where, instead of focusing on startups, she paints a holistic picture of the delta of Stanford student culture.
Davis starts with an anecdote of a fraternity using excess sand from a hula party to build an island in the middle of a campus lake. They rented a bulldozer, wooed the groundskeeper, and left their mark on the Santa Clara Valley. The brothers then built a zipline from their house to the island, making the patch of land their fun weekend getaway. Davis then says, “It is hard to imagine someone at Stanford building an island anymore. In fact, it is hard to imagine them building anything. The campus culture has changed.”
Understanding Stanford’s Changing Culture
That same fraternity has since been removed from campus, turned into student housing, and given an alphanumeric name in accordance with surrounding buildings to avoid any naming-related controversy.
My interpretation of Davis’s article is that Stanford’s admin is working hard to squeeze out Stanford’s special sauce, with the same vigor that we all use trying to get that last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. Students churn out of the school yearly, while the same administrators remain. As campus organizations are removed, old buildings are renamed, and new rules are implemented, Stanford’s tube of toothpaste is close to empty.
I don’t think Davis is necessarily pro-fraternity; she seems to be pro-expression and pro-third space. She paints dozens more pictures about the hiking co-op house, reminiscent walks with friends, and closed doors and empty halls of freshman dorms. Students are lonely, sad, and frustrated, she explains. They aren’t happy, creative, and changing the world. My favorite quote from the article:
“Stanford students live in brand new buildings with white walls. We have a $20 million dollar meditation center that nobody uses. But students didn’t ask for any of that. We just wanted a dirty house with friends.”
Should you go to Stanford?
Probably. It’s still a great school with access to great opportunities.
The thing is that Stanford, and all elite schools really, have reached a tipping point. Stanford shares 70% of its admit pool with the Ivy League. This tells us that admitted students likely hail from a pool of highly resourced candidates. Some have legacy status. Others are resourced enough to check off the laundry list of items that admissions officers deem to be important. A smaller portion of people than ever are going to Stanford to think differently and change the world. They are going because it’s the express lane into a six-figure job post grad.
But honestly, if you are just looking to get hired, I’ve heard that SJSU’s career fair works just fine. Maybe with all the money you save on tuition, you can build sand dunes in their quad.
Want to work in Silicon Valley? Here’s why SJSU might be the right choice.