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Colleges are special clubs

What is bundled as college education

College education can be seen as a bundle of: badge + social experience + content.

Many professors think college is all about the content they teach. I’d say it’s not. I believe that content plays only a minor role and that college is mostly about the badge (long-term) and the social experience (short-term).

Let me walk you through an analogy to make clearer what I mean by badge and by social experience.

The idea is to think of college as some sort of a special club.

So, holding the badge means having been accepted as a member of the club.

Social experience is the people and life dynamics within this special club. For instance, college very often is a rite of passage marking the beginning of adulthood. It frequently involves moving out of one parents’ house to a new place and then forging life-long relationships with new people.

For 4-5 years the club is a full-time activity that fulfills one’s life. Then, upon finishing it, one basically takes the badge, the friendships, and the effects of having been exposed to the content.

The intricacies around the badge

There’s a lot more to be said about the badge specifically.

Let’s first make two observations about value:

  1. For a badge to be of any value, the club must be selective
    Imagine anyone could say they went to Harvard. What would happen to the value of Harvard’s badge? It would obviously decrease a lot. Why? Because being a member of that club would be a signal with much less information in itOne could ask: Why do we need these kinds of signals in the first place? The best short answer I can give now is: because it’s impractical to evaluate everyone on an absolute scale, there will always be the need for shortcuts and relative comparisons.

    . A significant part of any badge’s value is in its scarcity. It’s in the club being as exclusive as possibleI won’t digress about the selection process itself here and now. But, of course, there are good questions to be asked around: What kinds of filtering society seems to accept? How fundamental is merit? Is there anything money cannot buy?

  1. The value of the badge is proportional to how much society sees the club as legitimate and special
    Being selective isn’t enough. For the badge to be really valuable, society must recognize the club as something notable.

But how exactly does society perceives these badges?

Well, note that:

What I’ve just outlined is a self-reinforcing feedback loop that makes college education from famous institutions one of the powerful things in our societyI came to believe that “self-reinforcing feedback loops” is a pattern shared by other powerful things in our society and I might write about it in other texts.


Visualizing the self-reinforcing feedback loop

Here’s a simple diagram that might be helpful to visualize step by step how the ideas I’ve outlined above come together in a self-reinforcing feedback loop (tap to zoom):

The three components of the bundle (content + social experience + badge) are shown in blue. In addition, I’ve highlighted the other key parts: the filtering step and the two side-loops (network and brand) that help make the core loop even stronger.

So what?

Equipped with this lens, we might question ourselves: is it possible to create new kinds of badges and clubs?

Let’s look at what has been emerging in the last few years.

Around Computer Science new interesting badges are being created with Kaggle, HackerRank, GitHub, and Stack Overflow.

These places are open for anyone to join and have leaderboards where top-ranked participants get badges awarded for (publicly transparent) achievements. It’s definitely an interesting twist to badges: open the funnel and in a software-based, scalable way let the “best” rise from anywhere in the world.

There are other recent initiatives where the filtering process still relies on committees (i.e. centralized, less scalable) but that nevertheless are very worthy angles: Thiel Fellowship and Y Combinator come to mind.

From what I can tell (from far outside), these two do seem to have more powerful loops than the online badges. They do feel like fully-featured clubs themselves. I guess that might be the case because:

To me it does feel like the next generation of clubs should try to merge these approaches: cast the net wide open in a scalable way and also work hard on brand and network in order to have desirable badges as widely as possible.

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