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Stanford University Is Dying

You go where you know. You went to the wrong college and spent too much money.
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On the campus of Stanford University. (Photo: Brandon/Flickr)

On the campus of Stanford University. (Photo: Brandon/Flickr)

Parents work hard and will do whatever it takes to put their children in the best preschool. Such parents should relax. Two graduate degrees in one household is an air-tight predictor of academic success. Ask any university admissions program. Good social science aside, mothers will go to great lengths to put their kids on the right academic track. Frank Bruni of the New York Times trying to make failed over-educated, underemployed moms feel better:

I also spoke with Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, one of the best-known providers of first-step seed money for tech start-ups. I asked him if any one school stood out in terms of students and graduates whose ideas took off. “Yes,” he responded, and I was sure of the name I’d hear next: Stanford. It’s his alma mater, though he left before he graduated, and it’s famous as a feeder of Silicon Valley success.

But this is what he said: “The University of Waterloo.” It’s a public school in the Canadian province of Ontario, and as of last summer, it was the source of eight proud ventures that Y Combinator had helped along. “To my chagrin,” Altman told me, “Stanford has not had a really great track record.”

In this case, distinguish between talent and ideas. I have advanced an economic geography of talent production. Wherever the best talent is produced, firms will go. I was wrong. Waterloo, Ontario, proves how wrong I was. The place that produces the best ideas will attract firms.

Parents, you have heard of Stanford. You haven't heard of Waterloo (outside of Napoleon). In terms of ideas, Waterloo > Stanford. Stanford University is yesterday's economy. The University of Waterloo is tomorrow.

Stanford used to produce the best ideas. That's no longer true. The economy will catch up with that. So will parents.

Firms migrate as moths to a flame. Knowledge production is the draw. Talent will migrate to where knowledge production is easiest. Companies crave innovation and will move wherever the ideas are; even if it means residing in Canada instead of Silicon Valley.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.