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College Degree Required. But Why? (inc.com)
34 points by caffeinewriter 1731 days ago | hide | past | web | 53 comments | favorite

Perhaps student debt feels good for employers because desperate graduates will accept any kind of treatment?

Please correct me if I'm beside the mark.

Actually, I think you might have something there. Key quote from the NYT:

“College graduates are just more career-oriented,” said Adam Slipakoff, the firm’s managing partner. “Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures."

From the comments: "This "degree inflation" seems like a new system of debt peonage. The individual borrows a fortune simply to get the "credentials" for a low-paying job and spends the rest of his life trying to pay off his student loans. That's almost a guarantee that the citizen will not get politically active or in any way threaten the status quo."

A workforce that is deeply in debt to non-dischargeable loans is a workforce that has limited options, is more docile, and more easily manipulated.


While it's true that individuals who are in financial trouble are not especially politically active, when there is a homogeneous group of people who are in financial trouble they often cause political discord. This is especially true if the group is educated. Some examples:

China, who semi-openly talk about the hell that will break loose if the middle classes have to suffer a recession.

The French revolution, for which a major short term cause was food prices.

The current unrest in Greece.

No, he's not "on to something" because a random commenter on a NYT article shares the same conspiracy theory.

Thanks for pointing this out.

This is the reason why I would hire educated (Academic education that is) people over people who are more practical. When you have had an academic education you also (should) learn to think critically about your sources, the way you reason and alternative strategies.

The main difference I have noticed around me between people of applied sciences degrees and academic degrees (a difference that contrasted much more in my country) is that the former will accept any source; Wikipedia, any newspaper, some guy's blog, a comment on some thread from a conspiracy theorist. The latter, the academic, will (should) only use proper sources i.e. academic research or, in the case of less important things (like HN), at least some form of respectable medium.

When reading up on important subjects, something that isn't researched and then published through reputable scientific journals, simply does not exist. Otherwise we'd waste time discussing whether we went to the moon, etc.

In other words, here's a link to a peer reviewed journal article about farting on airplanes: http://journal.nzma.org.nz/journal/abstract.php?id=5532

Or when a reputable mathematical journal accepted a nonsense paper generated by Mathgen: http://boingboing.net/2012/10/19/math-journal-accepts-comput...

Don't get me wrong, I have certainly noticed becoming more critical of sources in the 5 years of going through an academic university (despite not quite finishing), but even scientific papers can often be proven silly by just a quick look at some common sense.

Also, wikipedia is a magnificent source on most topics. Very good overview/introductory material and a way to look for "proper" sources.

I am also still of the firm opinion that wikipedia gets more peer review than the average peer reviewed paper.

There is a difference between silly and trustworthiness of course. But yes, not all academia is good or even worth while, but still is more (potentially) useful than some blog. This does not mean that it can't be true what someone is saying, but there is no reason to trust it.

As for Wikipedia; yes I a agree. Wikipedia is great, I have donated several times to the organisation. That does not mean however that it is academically useful beyond the point of exploring a subject on a very high level. For day to day things there is nothing that can beat it. Apart from Stack Overflow for us programmers that is.

The trustworthiness of opinions comes into play again with the last thing you say. It is like with Homeopathic medicine, as soon as it is scientifically proven to be true/working, it becomes 'real' medicine. Also, even if it were true, does 'more' peer review mean 'better' peer review. Also, with some subjects I would think that 'peer' is somewhat far fetched; conspiracy theorists are not the peers of astronomers.

You're trying to correlate level of education with moral development ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlbergs_stages_of_mo... oh noes! I linked to Wikipedia). I'd like to see your research that demonstrates there's a positive correlation between the two.

It seems you're relating Pre-conventional to high school education, and Conventional to college education, when it would seem that your arguments related to the value of 'reputable scientific journals' would exclude you from post-conventional moral reasoning, as you're stuck at stage 4 of conventional reasoning with the logic of conforming to the authority of 'reputable scientific journals'.

Luckily I am in good company at stage 4. How nice of you to join me.

I don't think anyone is seeing a conspiracy here. Just a bunch of individual employers making similar decisions for similar reasons, which add up to a perverse system, even though no evil mastermind had planned it.

"Conspiracy theory" has got to be the one of the most overused denigrations of our times.

The idea that powerful people are mostly bad (clearly true) and pursue their interests through indirect means is not a "conspiracy theory". It's how the world actually works.

Small-c conspiracies exist. People are naturally conspiratorial. They form in-crowds for specific, often socially unacceptable, purposes and attempt to pursue their goals in secret and through indirect means.

There isn't one Conspiracy to rule them all-- the idea that you can "blow up the room where they all meet" and liberate humanity is clearly a fantasy-- and elites will compete with each other as often as they collude. The reason why traditional "conspiracy theories" are so ridiculous is because they fail to account for in-fighting and discord within the world's elite, a set of people that, while deeply evil, is far from homogeneous. If you believe that Arab oil sheikhs give a damn about American college tuition, then you're probably a "conspiracy theorist" and you're wrong. If you believe that powerful people will often work together to pursue corrupt goals both in secret and through substantial indirection, then you're going to be right some of the time.

What's being discussed here, however, isn't even a conspiracy. It's what happens when people in authority pursue their own interests. No coordination or clandestine meetings are needed.

It's a conspiracy because indebted grads are better for "the system", not the individual employer.

Just because you're in debt, it doesn't mean you can't change jobs. You're not inherently more likely to stay in the same crappy job because you have debt, you're just more likely to not drop out of the rat race, go live off the land, do a startup or lifestyle business or whatever "non-system" lifestyle that doesn't provide the financially stability your debt requires.

I'll accept evil employers acting for their own goals, but that they should selflessly (non-college-grads are likely to be a great deal cheaper) help the goals of "the system" assumes a collective long-term concern for the greater "good" that is not exactly founded in evidence.

You're off the mark. Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

my student loan debt means I require a higher salary.

If I didn't have the debt I'd be able to work for much less than I currently do and still have the same quality of life.

Q: "But Why?" A: "Because they can."

As long as I can get someone with a degree for the same price as someone without it - Why on earth would I choose the one that might be as good as the one with the degree?

There are many qualities an educated person has. Not limited to responsibility, commitment, knowledge and discipline. These are key to even graduating.

I'm not saying these qualities are impossible to find in someone without a degree. I'm saying they are guaranteed in a educated person. So again: Why on earth would I choose the one that might be as good as the one with the degree?

A whole bunch of the comments mention that employers who are insisting on college degrees as a hiring criterion are basically attempting to use the degree requirement as a proxy for a requirement that would be more plainly illegal under current United States law. That's regrettable on two levels: degree requirements are demonstrably, by replicated research, poor criteria for hiring for almost any kind of job, and if the company is trying to find a work-around to practice illegal discrimination, the company should be just as liable for the degree requirement as for other illegal requirements. There is a research base on what hiring procedures work best (short answer: work-sample tests and general mental ability, a.k.a. IQ, tests) for finding good workers for most kinds of jobs. No hiring procedure is perfect, as all hiring procedures produce false positives (applicants who are hired even though they end up being lousy workers) and false negatives (applicants who don't get hired, even though they end up being great workers for some other employer). But if you want to be scientific about hiring and improve your odds of getting a good worker, you had better build work-sample tests into your hiring procedures.

In the United States, IQ-type tests were held by the Supreme Court to be illegal (UNLESS specifically validated for the job in question) under the federal equal employment opportunity statute in a case that found that IQ tests have a disparate impact on applicants from some "race" groups. The facts on the ground are changing (the "race" gap in IQ scores is not nearly as large as it used to be, and appears still to be closing) and that rationale, properly thought through, would apply equally well to show that other hiring criteria might be just as illegal. Possessing a college degree is a much stronger signal of family wealth than of job-applicant intelligence, really,


but many companies these days insist on college degrees from applicants for jobs for which a college degree is no preparation at all. That just tends to turn many lower-tier colleges into expensive diploma mills.



for the most recent posting of my full-length FAQ on company hiring procedures, written specially for HN discussions.

College Degrees are required for many jobs they shouldn't be required for because if employers...

1. Perform criminal background checks. 2. Perform their own aptitude tests.

They could be liable for disparate impact racial discrimination suits.

I had to google "Disparate Impact" which I discovered means "not discriminatory at its face, but in its application" (paraphrasing wikipedia)

So if a college education is just a proxy for those other indicators, wouldn't college also have the same disparate impact? If it didn't, then it wouldn't be a good proxy. I might be missing something key here.

Can you elaborate a little?

A college degree is considered an independent, standardized proof of aptitude; unlike a test performed by a recruiter which could possibly be a masquerade to exclude people of some race or gender etc. Even http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72 is not a strong argument--for one thing it's not the employer's fault that our society is still unequal.

A college degree is not evidence of no criminal record, only a very good positive signal (as the % of felons with a college degree is very small, I suppose). Claiming that an employer requires a degree as a proxy for criminal background check would get you nowhere in a discrimination lawsuit, unless you have solid evidence (recordings, documents, confession).

A college degree is essentially used by some employers as just a proxy for an IQ test.

And college (and all schooling here in the U.S.) likely does have a disparate impact, but it is not the same as jobs. Schools don't hire students. We have universal education at least for K-12, and colleges have scholarships and the like to enroll more minority and lower-income students.

"More important, not only do students enter college with unequal demonstrated abilities, but those inequalities tend to persist—or, in the case of African-American students relative to white students, increase—while they are enrolled in higher education." http://chronicle.com/article/Are-Undergraduates-Actually/125...

The problem with college is that they aren't doing a good job at actually educating students (see the above article about the book Academically Adrift). Faculty at most colleges, for example, are never even trained in how to effectively teach - they lecture. Research has shown that engineering students in traditional lecture courses are twice as likely to leave engineering and three times as likely to drop out of college compared with students taught using active learning methods. Active learning also results in twice as much learning as lecture methods. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ost...)

And the problems at the K-12 levels include things like no universal pre-school, which could decrease inequity, and the lack of learning and high number of dropouts in high school.

Even if conservative criticisms of 'disparate impact' are right (http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-dead-...), there is still the moral problem of inequality. Do we just accept racial/income differences as unchangeable or inherent to humans, or do we actively try to improve the situation.

Well, actually you can get in trouble for this but...

People are much more likely to complain about losing out of a job if they go out of their way to take an job related aptitude test as compared to being pre-screened out for not having a college diploma.

The article looses a lot by being so vague about which jobs could easily have been held by high school grads that instead requires college degrees.

One reason I could think of is that as college education become more readily available for still more people, deciding not to go (gut feeling, isn't it really more often a decision not to go, rather than to go?) is a progressively more meaningful filter.

I'm sure a similar shift happened as high school became ubiquitous - then high school became a requirement for some jobs that were previously held by those with no high school.

This is generally a good thing, it's an artifact of society as a whole becoming better educated. The main problem with college is that it hasn't really caught up to it's new status as "general" education, rather than "elite" education. That said (I'm not american so not intimately familiar with the system), isn't it entirely possible to get a decent education (although with little "elite" signalling value, it would "tick the box" for college degree on the types of jobs the article refers to) from a state or community college and not have a lifetime of debt to deal with afterward?

I went to a state-run community college on Georgia's HOPE scholarship. I went in to learn network administration, but it ended up patching all the holes left by a K-12 system that was broken long before immigration in the '90s stretched it to the breaking point.

It's popular to joke about how easy it is to get a college education in this state, but I don't think Georgia's $400+ billion GDP amid the century-long economic turmoil of this region is a coincidence. PINES[1] probably helps, but I think Georgia's focus on getting everyone into some sort of college is key.

[1] http://www.georgialibraries.org/public/pines.php

> isn't it entirely possible to get a decent education from a state or community college and not have a lifetime of debt to deal with afterward?

This is the key. I know so many people who insisted on going to an out of state of private school and now are deep in debt with poor job prospects and not many marketable skills, when they could have gotten the same education from a state school, and have poor job prospects and not many marketable skills but not be deep in debt.

Given two equally capable candidates, the one with the degree is better. That's the idea. It's not true of course. Being over qualified can be just as bad as being under qualified. Labor is the most expensive part of a business. A qualification mismatch will result in a high turn over rate. Depending on your business, that could be costly. That's why you can be, e.g. too smart to be a police officer. You'll get bored and leave.


> Given two equally capable candidates, the one with the degree is better.

This doesn't have to be "true" to be useful. A positive correlation is a valuable tool as well.

Unfortunately I presume research could be done on (bonus if someone knows of and can reference) the measure of a qualified candidate decreasing as more candidates enter the 'have a degree' pool. It may have previously been a stronger correlation, but I'd imagine that correlation is weakening, and if current trends continue of colleges accepting lower and lower qualified candidates, and the lines blurring between different colleges and the level of graduates they're pumping out -- it will eventually be meaningless, as they'll hand degrees to anyone who will pay (or more likely indebt themselves).

"True" in this context wouldn't mean anything more to me than a significant positive correlation.

How do you know there is a positive correlation? I can think of several reasons why there wouldn't be. In particular, a college graduate will tend to be unsatisfied with a job for which he or she is overqualified, leading to a drop in morale and an increase in turnover.

If we were talking about footballers, a candidate with a college degree is likely to be seen as having a higher ceiling.

Companies often prefer candidates with college degrees because their career ceiling is likely to be higher - e.g. a receptionist with a college degree is more likely suited for advancement to management or sales than one without. Partially this is educational - he is closer to an MBA - partially it is socio-economic - he may have a more similar background to existing management and customers.

In addition as a practical matter, adding a college degree requirement allows the hiring manager to disqualify potential candidates faster and uses an objective standard to do so. The perceived value of making one's job easier should never be discounted.

Intelligence is a good indicator of potential job performance when screening candidates, a degree is positively correlated to intelligence and it is illegal in some countries/states to test for intelligence, so it can be used to sort out applicants on that basis.

I former client of mine said that employees with and without college degrees would perform equally at his company, but the big difference was the ability to adapt to changes (e.g. changes in technology or changes in assigned responsibility). Once there was a big enough shift in the assigned activities for some reason, the people with college degrees was able to quickly adapt, while the others were lagging behind.

From my point of view, that makes sense. Isn't the primary goal of a college education to learn the ability to learn?

I've always been surprised how little disruption there has been in the field of corporate hiring.

As other people have mentioned, many employers use a college degree as a rough proxy for intelligence and/or work ethic, but how good is it really? Can't we do better?

"Moneyball" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moneyball) is a great book about the statistical revolution that took place in major league baseball, and shows us how advanced analytics enabled one team to go beyond rough proxies and subjective judgments to successfully sign players who were highly productive but undervalued by other teams.

Assuming sports is just a simplified version of real life, why hasn't a similar data-driven revolution happened yet in business hiring? Or does the status quo work "well enough"?

While we're at it, I guess we could also pose the question of how favorably (or not) YC's own application process compares to that of most colleges and corporations.

Measuring one's individual performance is a lot harder in business than baseball.

I like this idea, but I don't think you can Moneyball corporate hiring very easily.

Professional athleticism is a direct meritocracy. If you hire better players, you win more games and make more money, and you see the effects immediately. In the corporate arena, there's no direct feedback and the meritocracy, to the degree that it exists, is much murkier. It takes years before you learn that you've hired an incompetent executive and, by that time, the damage is done.

For a concrete example: the owner of a baseball team would almost never put his 300-pound, incapable cousin on the team as a personal favor. It would ruin the performance of the team and destroy his business. Yet VC-funded startups are frequently pressured to hire the VC's underachieving friends into executive roles. The people who are in authority to allocate executive positions have learned that there's more personal benefit in treating these positions as favors to be traded than by filling them with the most qualified people, so they choose the former (and always will).

With Moneyball, we're talking about direct-production roles where performance is visible and it matters. The problem with executive hiring is that those are value-capturing roles that occasionally involve production.

Some people claim college is the new HS, a new baseline that everybody is reaching. Why shouldn't hiring managers work with that baseline?

Because it marginalizes anyone who doesn't want / cannot afford to take on about $100k in debt?

I think that's pretty grossly unfair. I graduated from undergrad from a good--not great, but good--state school with $17K in debt. My scholarships paid for about $9K. My parents and I (summer jobs, Google Summer of Code, etc.) chipped in about $26K.

No, you're not going to Stanford on that, but you can still go to a good school with a respectable reputation for teaching, if not research.

Question from a European: what's the cheapest way to get a college degree in the US? In Austria you pay 363.36 Euros per semester, plus a ÖH-fee of 15 Euros. Some federal states pay the 363.36 Euros for you. If you're not from the European Union, you pay twice as much, if I remember correctly.

I know there's a thing called community college. Does it cost money? Is a degree from one of those worth so much less than one from MIT/Stanford/Harvard/Yale/Caltech/etc?

Community colleges cost money, but they cost less money. In my county in Pennsylvania, the community college charges $7,140/yr for tuition and fees. Unfortunately, they issue 2-year Associates degrees that have relatively little market value. To earn a Bachelors degree, the student needs two more years at another university. My local state university, Penn State, is charging $17,824/yr.

Add in the cost of books, and the total cost of a "budget" college education in Pennsylvania is roughly $55,0000.

As a counterpoint, a private engineering school like Drexel University (also in Pennsylvania) currently costs $51,405/yr, plus books, for a five year program, for a total in the $250-275,000 neighborhood.

My degree program was something like $14K a year, in that ballpark. I don't remember, because at UMaine at least, nobody pays sticker price. Pretty much anyone with a pulse and a not-horrible high school transcript will get at least a few thousand dollars chopped off the per-year price; I think the total cost of my four years at a state university, including room and board, was under $60K.

(Also, many private institutions, namely the ones with pretty nice endowments, have gone the route of covering most, if not all, of their students' tuition expenses.)

And if I didn't want to take $26k debt what then? I wouldn't have the option of having my parents pitch in, they never were able to save money for college. $26k is still a lot of money for a young person, I went straight into the workforce without college, I'm 21 now and while most people my age are in debt, I have a nice little bit saved in my bank account.

> And if I didn't want to take $26k debt what then?

If you want to trade anecdotes: I'm 25 and have been out of college for about two and a half years. I spent two years at TripAdvisor and now oversee mobile development at a funded startup that actually, unlike certain TechCrunch favorites, has a thing called a "revenue model". I have about $3K left on my student loans which I haven't paid back because the interest rates aren't high enough to bug me; I would rather have enough in easily liquified assets to take a year off on a whim.

I went into college a "pretty good" programmer. I came out a better hacker due to side projects and a better thinker because of the stuff college, both inside of CS and out, threw at me. I recommend it to pretty much everyone going into software development because without it you literally don't know what you're missing. College opens doors. It sounds trite, but it's true: it forces you to broaden your horizons in ways you may not have considered, it encourages you to build social connections among people not like you (which, sure, you might do, but let's be honest, most hackers don't), and, if you go somewhere with a decent CS background, puts a pretty handy layer of formalism on top of what a decent developer knows intuitively. It's the stuff "outside the lines" that I feel makes college so valuable.

You sound like you're doing well for yourself, and congratulations! That's not an easy road. But I'd say that while the 0.1% probability outcome for college and no-college is about the same, I'd also suggest that delta at most other points tilts very hard towards college, even factoring in opportunity costs.

I deeply regret having a degree, it only set back my life by 5 years and made me have crazy debts that mean almost half of my income ( I am avoiding taxes to not die of hunger or default debts, taxes are usually around 35% of income here... )

why not?

Not everyone needs to go to college.

I stopped going to community college after my first year; I had the choice between signing up for another semester or working full-time at a new job that I just received an offer for. It was a small hosting company that paid enough for me to live comfortably with my barista girlfriend. It also allowed me to move out of my parents' house, which was kind of a big deal when I was 19.

Now I'm 24 and I've since moved out to silicon valley (when I was 23). I now have 6 years in this industry (plus another 5 or so doing odd IT jobs here and there before I got a "real" job). I'm very happy that I didn't stay back in Michigan to finish college. I have many friends who are just now graduating (and a few still in school) with tons of debt and not many good jobs to hope for.

One of my friends actually hitch-hiked out to San Francisco. She's currently in her last semester of a well-known design school and she can't find any work.

I get offers all the time to interview at Fortune 500s for positions like "senior dev/ops", "cloud architect", etc. I currently work at a Fortune top 1000 company, and I was previously a linux sysadmin at an INC 5000 company.

I regret nothing and I don't see how college could have possibly made my situation any better. I wouldn't describe myself as a "go getter" or particularly motivated; I simply rejected the notion that college is necessary and found employers who were willing to look at my skills rather than pieces of paper which anyone with enough cash can now attain.

>> I regret nothing and I don't see how college could have possibly made my situation any better.

Yes that was your situation then and that doesn't apply to others.

>> I simply rejected the notion that college is necessary and found employers who were willing to look at my skills rather than pieces of paper which anyone with enough cash can now attain.

Can you say the same to accountants, doctors, etc.?

I was in a very similar situation during the late 90s. I am still doing well, even without a college degree (I have never had a propspective emmployer even ask). However, I really wish I had just finished it while I was younger and had less obligations.

The article attempts to explain "why not".

Here is the TLDR as I see it: If you insist of hiring over-qualified people, they are more likely to jump-ship as soon as something better comes along - staff turnover is a major issue.

Right. But that really depends on the person's attitude not the degree.

People with degrees will expect to be paid more and will generally be less satisfied with a job for which they are overqualified. This will push morale down and create lots of turnover.

One possible answer is a degree is not indicative of whether or not a person can perform a job well. Unless its a legally obligated position (practicing law or medicine for example), this could alienate talent that might otherwise do well.

I'm going to chalk this up to future shock and humanity's increasing inability to handle the now rapid rate of change. The economic role of college (before that, an aristocratic pursuit) is something society invented to tolerate the industrial rate of change, that fails at the current technological rate of change.

Pre-industrial economies: you did what your same-sex parent did. A man whose father was a carpenter became a carpenter. A woman whose mother worked the fields would also work in the fields. The needs of the economy didn't change very fast. Your childhood was spent planning to move into the role.

Industrial economy: society changes too fast for people to plan, in advance, for a specific job. That job may not exist. Jobs that don't exist now will be needed in 40 years. General education is required.

Technological economy: even faster rate of change. This is the DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself) economy in which every contribution should, ideally, be different. We still don't know what kind of educational process this type of economy mandates. It's all too new for us.

General education grew up in the industrial economy, and its purpose was to vouch that a person had sufficient intelligence to deserve specific mentoring that could be done as-needed at a later time. You got the college degree to prove that if you were put into management training for 2-3 years, you would learn enough to oversee a group of people doing industrial labor-- you didn't need to be an expert in that type of labor, which may not have existed when you got the degree. The college degree is insurance against economic change. You don't need to know in advance what industries will be in high demand in 30 years (that's impossible). You have proof on paper that you are adaptable enough that employers should invest in you.

The purpose of the college degree was to grant mobility by encouraging firms to invest. You can point to the fact that you successfully completed a 4-year, intellectually rigorous training process oriented toward general knowledge. The employer sees this and realizes it won't be a loss to put you in the 2-year rotational program it uses to bring up executives.

Lifelong employment at large corporations almost never exists in this technological economy, which leaves these concepts being a bit out-of-date. The industrial-era purpose of the degree was to convince employers to invest in you, and to learn general-purpose skills (management) that were unlikely to become obsolete due to industrial or mechanical changes.

In the technological era, most firms just don't invest in their employees at all on the assumption that, if they do so, people will take that capital and leave. In the industrial era, they "groomed" future leaders from within. In the technological era, they call executive headhunters. You might find a mentor by individually networking and building relationships, but the employer isn't going to make this happen and, if you're not someone's protege after 2 years, it makes the most sense to move on. The idea of corporate "loyalty" is gone on both sides and hopelessly anachronistic, and it won't come back any time soon.

The result of this is that (a) the economic return of the college degree has diminished to the point that it's becoming a terrible trade, but (b) people (college graduates or not) are ill-equipped to compete on the new, more fluid economy, and this lack of knowledge or capacity is causing people to cling to old, industrial-era patterns (such as the college degree immediately after high school) out of fear. The result is a system that's the worst of both worlds. Employers don't trust college degrees enough for them to serve their original purpose, so the positive validation of the degree is gone. What's now in play is that not having a college degree is a negative validation. People who didn't complete one are assumed, reflexively, to be lacking.

Regarding corporate loyalty and "grooming" leaders from within: Continues to be true in Germany. Especially at successful midsize enterprises ("hidden champions"). Degrees (biz and STEM) are of value also.

This headhunting thing and loss of degree value is more of an Anglo-Saxon issue.

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