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Proof of work beats a college degree
The worst $16,000 I've ever spent and highlighting an alternative path to accreditation
Spending 30 hours in the car means more than enough time for good conversation. I was recently in this situation with a friend and mentor as we drove from Missouri to the East Coast and back over the course of 3 days. As we talked, we got on the topic of a get together I’m putting on for a group of about 10 peers. At the onset of organizing this gathering, I had identified all of my guests as highly individuated people who pursue their interests with total conviction.
That description wasn’t quite detailed enough for my friend. Among other questions, he asked me, ‘How many of them went to college?’
As I answered the question, we spotted a surprising new pattern. 6, including me, were dropouts, and 4 had never gone at all.
If I could take a moment to skyhook my friends, I would say each and every one of them has inspired me in some way personally. I am convinced that each and every one of them will do something that will make a strong impact over the course of their lives. They are not living a passive existence. They will make the world a better place.
So that’s why this college fact was so interesting, and remained a hook that held our conversation for quite some time after spotting it. Our society tells us people who will change the world are people who graduate college. My peer group indicates otherwise.
I would be wrong to say that the above traits are only present in those who don’t attend college. While my gang of rag-tag doers all happened to be in the no-degree column, I have met many people who have completed some level of college degree that I would prescribe these traits also. With that caveat out of the way, the point I would like to hover on is the idea that college is no longer necessary to be the type of person to make a positive impact—if it ever was fully necessary. Beyond impact, I also think college is no longer necessary for achieving financial security.
College has gone from proof of work to proof of stake
There’s a concept in the crypto currency world referred to as ‘proof of work’.
Proof of work (PoW) is a form of cryptographic proof in which one party (the prover) proves to others (the verifiers) that a certain amount of a specific computational effort has been expended. Verifiers can subsequently confirm this expenditure with minimal effort on their part.1
For employers, this is what a degree used to represent. It was a tangible asset that marked the completion of some runway of effort. It was a firm indication a candidate had the experience necessary to perform similar work in the future.
Yet, I don’t think this is what a college degree represents anymore.
There is another concept in the crypto currency world referred to as ‘proof of stake’.
Proof of stake protocols are a class of consensus mechanisms for blockchains that work by selecting validators in proportion to their quantity of holdings in the associated cryptocurrency. This is done to avoid the computational cost of proof of work schemes.2
In simpler terms, people with currency are able to ‘stake’ that currency in order to validate new transactions. Does this scheme save on computational costs? Yes, it does. What it has also done is created both a lower—and therefore less secure—barrier to entry to validating these transactions, in addition to a model where those with the most resources continue to be rewarded more than their counterparts with less resources. In other words, money continues to funnel up because more stake = higher validation reward.
This is the parallel to the modern college degree. It is a mechanism where the highest bidder gets the most valuable version of the asset. Equal opportunity restrictions have made it so hard to judge a candidate on merit, that the only thing that a decision maker can do is judge a hiring decision on the most prestigious degree. Forget GPA or IQ.
On hacker news, patio11 answers the question: Are companies really legally disallowed from using IQ tests in the USA?:
Griggs v. Duke Power Company, 1971.3 US Supreme Court found that a particular use of IQ tests in hiring practices caused a disproportionate impact on African American employees. "Disproportionate impact" can make a facially neutral policy illegal under various US civil rights laws.
This is not a blanket ban on IQ testing in employment, but corporations being risk-averse, most of them don't really do it much any more.
(This is a very happy outcome for universities, since it gives them a virtual monopoly on discriminating on the basis of intelligence. Since that is really useful to do, all a university has to do is maintain its reputation as being a mostly reliable discriminator, and the actual contents of what it teaches are virtually irrelevant.)
‘A monopoly on discriminating on the basis of intelligence’. But what about discriminating on the basis of experience? The internet offers a hope towards keeping this mechanism for judgment decentralized, thereby giving individuals freedom from the pressure of attending college to prove they can be a valuable employee or contractor. This brings me to the main point that I want to convey:
It has become just as valuable to do things and show proof of work on the internet as it is to buy an accreditation.
In my own life, I started heading down the accreditation route. After high school, I deferred my college acceptance so I could build a business and goof off in Denver; then, I enrolled in a semester of classes at the 14th best college in the nation.
It was the worst $16,000 I ever spent.
...and that wasn’t even for a full course schedule. After one semester, I cut my losses. That was nearly 4 years ago. I’d have been graduating this year.
Instead, I spent the last 4 years building things that paid my bills, and learning other skills to leverage my time further. This track record has given me complete control over my personal narrative, and over time I’ve come to face little to no adversity when putting my hand up for new opportunities.
This is where I learned that a track record beats a piece of paper. Back to the group of rag tag go-getters I mentioned above, I’ve spotted the same pattern in their life maps. Writers who can point to things they’ve written. Musicians who can point to music they’ve produced. Entrepreneurs who can point to companies that they’ve built. Artists who can point to pieces they’ve created and sold.
When I was going to school before, I was pursuing biomedical engineering. I pivoted out and have since built up my skill set in programming, digital advertising and other processes related to running a business. The devil’s advocate argument to the point I am laying out is that it would be much harder to achieve a similar level of self accreditation in a more rigid field such as medical, legal and non-software related engineering disciplines.
But I don’t think it’s impossible. The examples I’ve laid out above with less schooling requirements are part of a trend line that is emerging. And even if it is not possible yet, with the proper tools and regulation in place, I am convinced that if that trend line continues we will see the same trend of decentralized accreditation enter into these more rigid disciplines.
Some of the things that would aid in this trend line continuing might be:
The reinstitution of the apprenticeship model in these more rigid practices
Programs for logging hours doing certain kinds of work
Exams to practice a profession without requiring any kind of college degree
All the above are proof of work mechanisms; things that show effort was expended for meritocratic reward as opposed to resources expended for aristocratic certification.
Choosing proof of work isn't about taking the shortcut to the finish line, but instead finding a more direct way to build credibility and to do it sooner.4 This is what I see my friends doing. This is where I see the trend line heading. If I should be so bold as to make a suggestion, I think it’s what others should be doing more of also.
Stop buying accreditation. Prove it.
If the last 4 years were me completing my undergraduate degree, then I’d like to start thinking about the next 2-4 as me competing for my graduate. I’m going to continue this trend line in my microcosm. Along the way, I’ll continue to write up blurbs to share what I think is more broadly valuable here.
Have fun out there.
Send me signal on Urbit: ~padlyn-sogrum
Justia Law. 2022. Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971). [online] Available at: <https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/401/424/> [Accessed 15 April 2022].