Stop Paying $250k for a Degree and a Network

It’s pretty clear that the 4-year university system is broken. There’s no question that college will look nothing like what it does now in 50 years.

This is especially apparent in technology, where Ivy League grads are now going to $15k bootcamps to get the same jobs they could’ve gotten without going to college and just gone to the bootcamp in the first place.

But it’s becoming more and more obvious in other industries as well. Ask your friends on Wall Street how often they use the skills they learned in undergrad.

Given that, let’s try to imagine what “the college of the future” would look by keeping the essentials and dropping everything else.

College is still highly valuable for two reasons:

  1. The degree
  2. The students

Notice that I didn’t put learning on this list. It’s pretty well understood that not much useful learning happens inside institutions of higher learning, unless you’re talking about the rules of beer pong. Yes, students learn facts, submit assignments, take tests and get grades, but that doesn’t count as useful learning, except in certain classes under special teachers. Learning useful things mostly happen outside of the college classroom, either building things, on the job, interacting with peers, or deep in a book.

Neither did I put the research or access to professors on this list. Both of these things are valuable to some people, but not to most. Furthermore, these things are still accessible to students without going to college, through MOOCS, private research labs, working part time for a nearby university’s lab, and by directly emailing professors. Turns out college professors love getting fan mail — who could’ve seen that coming?

The Degree

A college degree is the most widely accepted way to quickly convey a general sense of your intellect and work ethic to a stranger. This is valuable, especially with employers, immigration officers, potential mates and their parents.

However, with the exception of a few infamous engineering programs, it’s understood that the hard part is doing well enough in high school to get into a good college, not graduating from the good college. As the saying goes, you’d have to be trying to fail out of Harvard.

Thus, it’s increasingly not actually the college degree that matters but the college acceptance letter. Many dropouts, including Zuckerberg, Gates and yours truly, have already acted on this bias by leaving a 4-year college degree program after about a year.

We can easily replace this signaling mechanism for way less than $250k per student. One way is to set up an independent “signaling” company that accepts the Common Application from all students and rates them similar to how colleges do by accepting and rejecting students. The main difference with this “admissions department” is that they’re not admitting anyone into anything, but simply putting names on their website to show the world how smart they are. It’d be kinda like Mensa, but more subjective and comprehensive.

Let’s call it the “Signal.” As in, “What’s your Signal?” Or, “He he’s a 2 Signal.” To integrate the Signal with our current understanding of college rankings, we could equate an applicant’s Signal ranking to the US News and World Report ranking of the best college this applicant would’ve likely gotten into. Thus by US News and World Report’s 2016 ranking, anyone that could’ve gotten into Princeton would be deemed Signal 1.

While the current college admissions process is a decent place to start our fictitious admissions company, it doesn’t take too much imagination to foresee an improved application process that is more egalitarian, healthier for applicants and their families, and a more helpful signal for employers.

The Students

During my freshman year of college, I was talking to a friend about how much college was costing our parents. We were trying to figure out what they were paying all that money for. Eventually it hit us: my parents were paying all that money so I could meet my friend and his parents were paying all that money so he could get to meet me. Penn was just a very expensive matchmaker.

While it seems crazy to charge us both $250k for the matchmaking, it’s not that insane. The network you form in college is very, very valuable.

But more than economics, college is a the seminal time in your life that you expand your mind beyond the worldviews of your parents and those of your hometown. It’s where you figure out who you are, who you want to be, and whom you want to spend your time with. For many, it’s a place to meet best friends and life partners, or the people that will introduce you to those people.

MOOCS can’t even come close to approximating this part of the college experience.

Thus, the cheapest way I can imagine replicating this part of college is by housing a group of similarly-Signaled students in the same geography. This way, you’d get all the smart kids in the same place, just like in any other competitive 4-year program.

The College of the Future

You may have some questions. Wait, what’s the structure? What will students do all day? What will they learn? Will it devolve into alcohol-abusing, drug-induced, sexual anarchy? Will employers actually respect this “degree?” Will parents trust their children to this wacky institution?

The answers to these questions is, of course, it depends on what structures are added beyond the admissions department and student housing. I imagine creating cultures of learning, mentorship, teamwork and student leadership would be a good first step here, but it’s mostly a question of executing on the hundred little details at the discretion of the school’s founders and executives.

They key point I’m trying to convey here is that once you fulfill the functions of the signaling and student housing, the rest is just details. Which is, of course, where the devil lives. Clearly, there are ways to poorly implement a “college of the future,” just as there are poor ways to implement colleges of the present as is demonstrated by the undesirable universities of today. (In fact, the colleges of today are technically “colleges of the future” plus a bunch more uber expensive and unnecessary stuff.) More succinctly, signaling and student housing mechanisms are the necessary and sufficient criteria for a “college of the future.” Beyond that, however, quality may vary.

So there you have it. We took a 700 year-old institution and just kept the good parts: a highly-competitive signaling process combined with student housing.

No professors, curriculum, assignments, deadlines, tests, class requirements, research, a 4-year-minimum sentence, or a soul-crushing tuition and its subsequent years of debt.

Just a bunch of smart 18–22 year-olds figuring themselves out, growing up, building shit, and learning exactly one metric fuckton.

Originally published at