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College and the Reputation-based Economy

College and the Reputation-based Economy

Anya Kamanetz l GOOD

April 08, 2010

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.

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