The feedback loop that makes universities special
Part two of our series Examining Higher Education
Famous universities are exceptional institutions in society. They are highly revered — one could say, they’re almost worshiped. They’re also very long-lived. Many of the famous universities were founded several centuries ago. And, in many ways, these institutions are indeed bastions of modern civilization.
I believe that a particularly strong self-reinforcing feedback loop is behind what makes them so special. I have written before that college is better understood as a club that offers a bundle of content, social experience, and badge. It turns out there is a feedback loop that ties them together and makes it all clearer.
Here it is step-by-step:
- People aspire to and try hard to enter the famous colleges
- Colleges get a large pool of qualified candidates to select from (let’s call this the filtering step)
- Students who are admitted get content and social experience
- After graduation, alumni carry the badge publicly and are granted access to the finest work opportunities
- Some alumni, always carrying their badge in the public, become “successful”
- Society sees their success and infers that the badge must have been a key ingredient
- Back to step 1 (People aspire…)
And there is more. The core feedback loop is made even stronger by two side loops.
The first side loop is based on the fact that alumni, old and new, help each other. They network and exchange professional opportunities. Incidentally, that’s exactly what you would expect to happen in a club.
The second side loop relates to what universities do beyond undergraduate education. Their most relevant secondary activity is scientific research. Every famous university is home to dozens of research labs. Doing science and contributing to progress are great ways to raise any institution’s profile, and they sure do. Call this the brand side loop.
Here is the full diagram expanded with the two side loops:
If universities have such well-protected stronghold in society, will there ever be worthy alternatives or substitutes? We dabble at this question in the next piece of this series, What will render colleges obsolete?.
Examining Higher Education
Series of essays deconstructing what higher education is really all about, and how its future might look like: