A college degree is a signal.
It’s a signal to the world of your value in the market. It conveys information about your ability, skill, and intelligence. There is a lot of noise in the world of work, and it’s hard to figure out who’s worth working with. A degree cuts through some of that noise and puts you in a smaller pool of competitors.
The thing is, this signal is not as valuable as you think. It’s also very expensive.
Not long ago a degree may have been the best signal most people could get. There weren’t many ways to demonstrate your value to the market, so a degree was one of the better bets. Things have changed dramatically. Technology has opened up the world. The tools available to you now have lowered search and information costs, and you can create signals of your own that are far more powerful than a degree.
A person with a strong GitHub profile has a signal that beats a degree. If you’ve launched a startup, even if it lasted only six months and ultimately failed, you’ve done something that sends a more powerful signal than a degree. If you’ve raised money, sold products, done freelance work, produced videos, run social media campaigns, mastered SEO or AdWords, built a website, designed logos, started a nonprofit, been published in a handful of outlets with good content, had valuable work experience, or even just have an amazing online presence via a personal website and/or excellent LinkedIn and social media profiles, you have a signal more valuable than most degrees.
If you are not very talented or ambitious and you are unable to do anything like the above, a degree might be the best signal you’re capable of getting. When you realize that all the other students half asleep around you in class will walk away with the same signal, it becomes clear that it doesn’t carry that much weight. It says, “I’m no worse than everyone else with a BA.” If getting a BA is a really hard task for you and building something better is overwhelming, the signaling power of a degree might be worth it. But if you are able and willing to do more — if you are above average and can excel in most environments, than you have in your power right now the ability to build a better signal than a degree.
You have at your fingertips tools that young work-seekers and employers a few decades ago didn’t. Never has it been easier and cheaper to start a business, offer freelance services, learn to code, show off your writing or artistic skills, and build a portfolio of value created.
Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them
Consider the woman who created this website in an effort to get hired at AirBnB. Her resume listing her academic accomplishments and other common signals was lost in the noise. So she built a better signal.
The website is far more valuable than any degree or honor roll listing. AirBnB took notice, and I can guarantee that website alone has created more job offers and interest than she can handle. In fact, so entrenched is the degree-as-signal mindset that this woman’s effort went viral immediately. The competition among degree holders is fierce, while the competition among those who build a better signal is almost nonexistent.
There is nothing in her story that required a degree. If you want to work for a cool company, you can do something like this yourself right now regardless of educational status. Why settle for a dated, baseline signal that says you’re no worse than every other degree holder?
What Happens to College?
Here’s the interesting thing: The more young people begin to build better signals, the better college will become.
Fewer people will go because most students attend to purchase the signal and that only. But those who stay will be there for the best reasons. They’ll be there because they love the college experience, the lectures, the professors, and the rest of the bundle.
Losing all those customers who are just suffering through the courses to get the signal will hurt the bottom line of most universities. Some might go under entirely. But for those who care deeply about higher education in its best form, this will be a welcome change. Schools will get sharper and better as they face competition. Instead of contenting themselves with delivering mediocre product because they have consumers who feel captive to the need to get that degree, colleges will begin to become more accountable to the customers there to gain knowledge.
Professors — good ones at least — will love this change. Students in their classes will be the ones who actually want to be there for the value of the classroom experience itself. Severing the credential from the classroom will enhance the quality of both.
How Do I Do It?
Most young people don’t know how to take advantage of this new world where they can craft their own signal. They’ve spent years in a conveyor belt education system that has instilled in them a rule-following, paper accolade chasing mentality. They see degrees and grades as safe, as fallbacks that will magically keep them afloat in hard times. They overestimate the signaling power of paper and underestimate their ability to create product. Product beats paper in the world of signals.
Entrepreneurship is becoming more than just an activity that a tiny number of company founders engage in. We once shifted from farming to factories, then from factories to offices. Today a shift from corporate offices to remote workers, freelancers, intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs is happening fast. Those who learn to think entrepreneurially, whether or not they ever launch their own company, and see themselves as their own firm, regardless of where their paycheck comes from, will build the future.
It’s hard to internalize and act on the opportunity in this new world. That’s one of the main reasons behind Praxis, the entrepreneur education company I launched. We want to help you build a signal that is more valuable than a degree. We want to help you do it in one quarter the time and for zero cost. We want you to have fun and become excellent in the process. We want to help you use the tools available and create your own future.
That’s why we place participants with growing companies to get work experience. That’s why we help them create personal development projects, tangible skills training, portfolio projects, and personal websites.
Praxis is just one way to help young people take advantage of the opportunity to build a better signal. The options are limited only by your imagination. Find one that works for you.
The future is bright. You have in your hands the power to create your own brand, to broadcast it to the world, to demonstrate your ability to create value. You can built a better signal than the generic one in the hands of tens of millions of other young people.
What will it be?
Isaac Morehouse has tried just about every form of education and has spent years building and running educational programs and mentoring students. Throughout his work in nonprofits, teaching, writing, and training, he’s seen diminishing returns from traditional education and career preparation models. Tired of imagining what other options might look like, he decided to break the mold and launch Praxis, a ten month program for young people who want to think like and become entrepreneurs.