New Credentials and Community

I have been thinking a lot about what the next Harvard will look like — what will the next credentialing business look like? There has been a lot of talk about the flaws of the current education system — especially universities — but it is really difficult to actually understand how we can iterate on these systems which are so well established in our society. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the key to building the next Harvard is to build a community, which will then help it become more recognized in society.

Indeed, the educational services that Harvard provides are of a high-quality — evident by the success of their graduates. The second key to the success of Harvard is its alumni community, and branding in general society. Harvard is not just a credentialing business, it is a network. When you realize this, you slowly start to notice that network effects will play a critical role in the next Harvard. The education is a key component of what the new Harvard will look like, but equally important is the student and alumni communities to which students will have access.

Alumni effects are powerful. Most colleges invest a lot of resources in developing their alumni community, whether it be through offering alumni-exclusive events, or access to a newsletter and portal with the latest information about the university and graduate success. Colleges realize how important their network is in terms of their success (which also explains why colleges still recognize “legacies”). The college’s alumni network gives them a few key benefits.

Firstly, they have the ability to build a stronger brand, which will, in turn, act as a magnet for future applicants. The Harvard Alumni community, for example, will provide members access to a variety of career and networking opportunities unavailable to anyone else. Businesses that want to hire great college graduates will partner exclusively with Harvard, or host private events with alumni, or make alternate arrangements so that Harvard graduates have the opportunity to interview for new positions. If you are an outsider, you don’t have access to this network — a network which would likely get you hired. If people believe in the power of Harvard’s network, then more people will want to apply — they will want the benefits of being able to access all of those people and employers.

Another benefit for colleges is that it allows them to cultivate long-term relationships with their students, which helps improve their position in society. Rather than college being a four-year experience, students have access to a variety of post-graduate services that help them succeed. These long-term relationships increase the chance that an alumnus of a college will donate to their endowment fund, or otherwise support the college either monetarily, or through donating their time and teaching a class. Long-term relationships also increase the chance that graduates will recommend other people to the college, which gives colleges access to a better talent pipeline, thus allowing them to further develop their brand. Alumni effects are a significant benefit to both students, and the school.

In terms of the student body community, outsiders want to be able to network with these young and passionate people who are in pursuit of knowledge, which will encourage more people to apply to the college — so they can experience that culture. Colleges have a unique culture in their networks which I also think is important to address. In most colleges — especially prestigious institutions — there is a special environment around students. When you bring passionate young learners together in such a large community, it creates a great culture based on shared knowledge and advancing society that is hard to replicate. I believe the main cause for this is that their community inspires a sense of pride. Harvard is not just a college, it is a brand. People are proud to attend Harvard, and their culture creates a sense of general cohesion. This culture is important to understand because it shows that the community is important, but so is the specific culture that institution has instilled.

Now that we understand the importance of alumni communities in the college context, we can now analyze how they can be used in the future of credentials. The main lesson to learn from colleges like Harvard and Yale is that their credential and network are normally the reasons why people apply to their colleges, not just the knowledge they provide. Therefore, the next college or credentialing business would have to offer a strong network both to current students, and alumni, accompanied by a strong culture that embodies the values of the institution, and its students. There have been a few recent examples of networks which are using these lessons to help them develop a replacement for — or alternative to — traditional college.

Perhaps the most notable is the Thiel Fellowship. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and a successful venture capital investor, offers young people $100,000 to drop-out of high school or college and pursue an entrepreneurial venture. The Fellowship has attained a significant amount of success because of the strong community it has developed. If a Thiel Fellow needs assistance, there is an entire network of fellow entrepreneurs into which they can tap. This support not only helps them in a business sense, but also gives them a personal support network when things fail Alternatively, they can use this network to celebrate their successes as well, which helps contribute to the development of the brand. The Thiel Fellowship are not just an investor, they are a brand. They have cultivated a strong community with a culture based on shared-knowledge and trying your best, outside of the traditional university environment. This is evident by the branding of the Thiel Fellowship. If you mention that you are a Thiel Fellow in any situation, you are likely to have a better chance of achieving your goal, because of the brand recognition and prestigious nature of the Fellowship.

Community is also important in college alternatives in helping convince wider society of their validity. If there is a strong community behind a college alternative, then the institution has access to a whole group of people who will advocate for the institution, refer prospective applicants, and help generate more cultural awareness of the institution. In return, the student has access to the powerful student and alumni networks, which will only improve as more members are added. In a sense, members of the Thiel Fellowship, Pioneer, YC, and other networks are incentivized to invest time in the network, because of the significant network effects that could be realized. Colleges are so engrained in our culture that having broad communities of advocates for alternatives will be important in establishing said alternatives as viable in the eyes of broader society.

Interestingly, communities create new contexts for developing new relationships. If you say that you attended Harvard to a Harvard graduate, you instantly have a shared experience which can serve as a new conversation starter. As pride grows among the community, this effect will become more prominent. Saying that you are a “Pioneer” or a “Thiel Fellow” in the future will create a context for developing relationships with other alumni — you have each went through the same experience. Networks not only provide people access with others who could help them, but also create the social context required to cultivate and maintain these relationships. Harvard and other colleges often offer alumni newsletters, access to exclusive events, and more, in order to help people develop these relationships.

The next colleges and credentialing businesses should optimize not just for their educational services, but also their network. Each network will take its own form, and attract different individuals at different stages of their life. Pioneer, an investor in the “lost Einsteins” of the world, is developing a community of young, ambitious innovators. The Thiel Fellowship, as aforementioned, is developing a community of young entrepreneurs. Y Combinator is developing a community of entrepreneurs ready to take their startups to the next level. These institutions can attribute a lot of their success to the communities they have cultivated. In sum, the next successful credentialing business and college will not be known just for its educational services, but also their ability to create a strong network. YC is becoming an increasingly popular credential because of the expansive network people have. Indeed, YC members can even sell their products to other YC companies, who are inclined to give them a chance because of their shared background. Community compounds, and new credentials will rely on these communities to develop their brand and be seen as a viable alternative to more traditional options.