College and the Reputation-based Economy

The transformation of higher education and how you can be in on it. In his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (free...

The transformation of higher education and how you can be in on it.

In his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (free download here), science fiction writer and free-software activist Cory Doctorow posited a society that ran on "whuffie," or a reputation-based currency. For instance, by doing something creative, impressive, or otherwise helpful to others, you gained whuffie. And if you knocked down an old lady in the street or stole someone else's ideas, you would subsequently lose whuffie.

In our society, an important part of our reputation is where, and for how long, we went to school.

Having a four-year college degree is a threshold for entrance into a large proportion of decent-paying jobs. As it's become illegal to discriminate in hiring anyone on the basis of race, creed, color, gender, or sexual preference, employer discrimination by education level is just about the only allowable screening device left.

And among college graduates, people discriminate even further-where Ivy League and some other private college degrees are considered to be worth more, which is part of the reason those colleges are able to charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for their seals of approval.

College diplomas are important signalers for social networks and dating, too. There are special groups like The Right Stuff that introduce only graduates of "excellent schools" including Ivies, major research universities, and competitive liberal arts colleges. More broadly, people tend to prefer to marry people of similar education levels, which is one of the factors contributing to rising income inequality-a married couple with advanced degrees tends to earn many times more than two high school dropouts.

But there are problems with relying on a college diploma as a major reputation signaling device. One is that it can be faulty. Not every graduate of an Ivy League college is a sterling example of humanity-just ask the alleged victims of Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama neurobiologist, Harvard Ph.D., and murder suspect in a recent multiple shooting. Conversely, many people who have acquired the right skills and qualifications for jobs, but who haven't completed a degree, get denied the opportunity to compete. (There are millions of Americans who have some college but no degree; only 56 percent of those who begin a four-year program actually complete it within six years.)

In a diverse, democratic society like ours, there's something strange about having a system where the value of your diploma depends on the exclusivity of the institution that awarded it, and where the most exclusive diplomas are also the most expensive. Logic suggests that we are screening out millions of qualified people this way.

Take Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Her rise from public housing in the South Bronx to the Supreme Court has been used as a shining example of American meritocracy. Yet she has said publicly and repeatedly that her acceptance to Princeton University and Yale Law School would have been "highly questionable" if not for affirmative action initiatives, now out of favor, which bent the rules to let her in to the elite schools even though her test scores were lower than those of her white classmates.

It would be nice if we had the funds and the political will to provide real, affordable access to a four-year residential college experience for everyone qualified. In the meantime, more people need a chance to prove their merits and succeed, and the concept of "whuffie" can show us how.

For my new book DIY U, I interviewed a self-taught computer programmer named Paul Shinn who I met on Twitter and who explained exactly how whuffie works for him. Shinn attended only one year of college. "Career-wise, my friends are the catalyst for my success," wrote Shinn in an e-mail to me. "I've worked mostly at places where either my friends could arrange an in-person interview, or my reputation preceded me. I've volunteered my time and efforts in the past to help develop software or fix bugs for various parties...These have helped me build a reputation. A friend who can specifically name a roadblock that was cleared with an outsider's help has a lot of power to recommend that person and to get them in the door."

A more developed example of a whuffie-based job network is Behance, which allows all kinds of creative workers such as photographers, graphic designers, and illustrators to upload multimedia portfolios. These can be seen, commented on, and voted up or down by the creative community-portfolios that get more recognition get promoted on the site and become easier to find. Companies such as Saatchi & Saatchi, Ogilvy & Mather, Nike, Apple, Facebook, and Netflix have all actively recruited from the site.

Interestingly, Behance has a family connection to the history of higher education. Scott Belsky, who founded the site in 2007 at age twenty-eight, also happens to be the grandson of test prep king Stanley Kaplan. "My grandfather started the test-prep industry out of a desire to make college admissions more of a meritocracy-because, back in the day, the SAT was the only way the underprivileged could gain admission to top colleges," Belsky says. "I admire my grandfather's intention, and I see a parallel need in the creative community."

A young person without much money or connections can build whuffie by trading what they do have: time and energy. These days, you can contact just about anybody you admire or whose work you are interested in through the Internet and ask them if you can help them in any way, ask them to be your mentor, or just simply ask them a question.

If we could supplement or supplant the diploma-based system for finding jobs and relationships with a more whuffie-based system, we could get closer to the true idea of a meritocracy. And as people start to create meaningful data trails and interact socially on the Internet, this concept gets farther away from science fiction and closer to real life.

Anya Kamenetz is a staff writer for Fast Company and author of "Generation Debt." Her new book, "DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education" is available now.

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