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Crowd Wisdom: What Would You Do If Your College Career Was Classified?

April 10th, 2008 · 19 comments

A Devious Thought ExperimentThe Secret

I want you to consider the following thought experiment:

The president of your college shows up at your dorm room early one morning. He has some surprising news. Due to a new policy, all students at your college will have their records classified. That means, after you graduate, you are forbidden — by punishment of imprisonment — to ever again mention:

  • Your major.
  • Your classes.
  • Your grades.
  • Your activities.

All potential employers and graduate schools understand this and won’t penalize you. They will only know the name of your college and that you passed your courses and graduated.Consider this simple question: in this thought experiment, what would the remainder of your college career look like?

I am really interested in your reactions. If you get a chance, I encourage yout to leave your answer as a comment to this post or e-mail me.

We’ll revisit the topic soon. I think it gets at a larger discussion that we’ll find productive.

19 thoughts on “Crowd Wisdom: What Would You Do If Your College Career Was Classified?

  1. I don’t think that I would mind if my degree was classified.

    I am a firm believer that the biggest benefit of school is for oneself. You get out of it what you put in. The knowledge that you gain is the important part. The piece of paper is meaningless.

    As long as it won’t hurt my chances with employers, I wouldn’t mind this. Also, I wouldn’t have to tell the ladies that I’m taking a computer science classes either.

  2. Amy says:

    I wouldn’t be afraid to not participate in silly activities or to change my major to something that I might enjoy a lot more. Perhaps I would just get a general studies degree instead so I could study a bit of everything, instead of completely focusing on everything major-related.

  3. Madeline says:

    If my grades, classes, and extracurriculars were hidden then they would probably see how I try to live my life in the most environmentally sustainable manner possible. They would see that I am an aspiring urban gardener, an active caretaker of a worm bin, and an all around concerned citizen.

  4. JJ says:

    Mine would look pathetic.

  5. kdp says:

    Well, doing this would make going to college pretty useless as a means of getting a job. Since you can’t discuss your major, classes, or activities, you are in a bit of a bind in an interview. I guess you could lie and say you learned all your job skills via non-school related activities…

    My guess is that employers would make all prospective employees take a series of tests to try and figure out what they know without having to ask them. I’d also guess that smart people would take a few classes for background material, but would really push to build an independent portfolio of work that could be used in lieu of school to wow a prospective employer.

    I think by banning the majority of information related to school, the value of going to school drops to near zero. Certainly learning is still valuable, but since admitting you actually learned anything is punishable by law, going to school in a formal sense becomes a mistake.

    I’d guess you’d start to see people giving training that focuses on creating real tangible results that can be used in a portfolio. The work would be basically classwork, but instead of credit, you’d have to create something that you can use as a portfolio for further work.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I don’t think anything would change personally, since I take the classes I want, I’ve designed my own major, and I only do the activities I want. I guess I’ve bought into the hype that you should do what you love, and what follows, follows, so don’t worry so much about it!

  7. Abe says:

    Actually, what would make the biggest difference to me would be if graduating simply required X amount of credits being passed. If that were the case (in addition to no one knowing what classes I took and what grades I got–other than knowing that I passed all of them), I’d take only classes that interested and challenged me. That’d probably mean that I’d take an eclectic mix of math, economics, physics, computer science, art, film, history, and so on.

    Mostly, though, it’d just mean that I wouldn’t sweat about the grades as much. I’d still study pretty hard (so largely things would be the same), I’d just be happier doing so because it wouldn’t hurt as much when I did poorly on hard tests (which there are a lot of in economics/math/physics/computer science). Okay, I might not study quite as much, and I’d probably make more time for work, maybe finding a girlfriend, and generally just bumming around.

    Still, as a budding economist, I have to point out that grades only mean something because to a certain degree they’re worth something…and, being worth something, implies that they are incentives; and incentives are why people–at the margin–perform or fail to perform. Thus, it’s fairly easy to see that on the aggregate such a policy would drastically reduce (even further) the performance of the average undergrad and lead to an even dumber populace. We already have enough people in college who operate under pretty much exactly this principle: they only care about passing and having fun.

    Maybe what we have here is two different audiences: the average reader of your blog who’s probably an overachiever who kills themselves for A’s (i.e., people like me) and whom wants to feel okay about taking it a little easier; OR the average college student who doesn’t read your blog and who is the other extreme (doesn’t care about learning, just wants a degree and a “real” job). For those of us in the first group the thought experiment is a worthwhile one; for those in the second group it’s moot: they’re already living it. My two cents.

  8. Cora says:

    Ha. An even more exciting question for some foreign students would be what you’d do if your major, decisions etc would somehow never be known by your parents.

  9. Jay says:

    I would take more “fun” classes…and sleep a lot more. I would probably also do more work in stuff outside of college, like starting a craft business.

  10. Jason Shen says:

    This idea is interesting because it now negates any of the power that “hardcore” people hold over the rest of us in terms of having an impressive transcript. How this would have affected my behavior?

    I would still compete for my gymnastics team
    I wouldn’t take any organic chem classes or chem lab
    I would have taken more “fun” classes like creative writing
    I probably wouldn’t have done an honors thesis, although I’m glad I’m doing one now
    I would have joined less groups
    I wouldn’t have done neurosurgery research
    I would have done more independent research on topics that interest me – namely creativity, marketing, personal development

    This development would basically make it impossible for someone to use their transcript/resume to prove they were capable and ambitious and would be both free me to pursue my interests but also make me demotivated to do anything hard.

    It’s like academic communism – no punishments for laziness, no rewards for effort.

  11. Will says:

    I think I’d major in painting. That’d be awesome.

  12. David says:

    Could all of this Radical Simplicity discussion be the makings of another book?

    It would completely revolutionize the environment of my school. People would lose interest in trying to beat other people for top grades as no one will care after graduation. This will mainly be the result of the bureaucrats/pre-meds quieting down. However, as a negative side effect, if grades don’t matter, the students at my school loose interest in learning and put in the bare minimum (which in some cases is indeed practical). At least this has been true in the few Pass/Fail minicourses I’ve seen. In fact, in this thought experiment, all college courses might as well be offered or taken pass/fail.

    I’ve really only addressed the grades part of it, but so much of my school’s environment revolves around grades that people often do the bare minimum in their other activities. Thus a decreased emphasis on grades would probably help people do more quality work in the activities.

  13. Regac says:

    I think that I could enjoy college more then.
    I would not be stressed about joining societies “silly” activities that I do now.

    I guess I would be able to just take my course, pass with average grades and enjoy more.

    Cheers

  14. John Doe says:

    If this happened it would just cause the good people to move to another college (so they have an ability to differentiate themselves from others to show their superiority) and take their grades with them (they haven’t graduated yet) getting credit. Those left would be either mediocre or poor students and grad school reviewers/job interviewers would know this and not hire people from that school.

  15. Study Hacks says:

    Excellent answers so far. Keep them coming. I’ll let some more gather before I post the follow-up…

  16. Kate says:

    I agree with Jason, it would be “academic communism.” Also, grades are there for incentive, as Abe points out.

    For me: It wouldn’t change much. I’m content with all of the things in my academic career that would be forbidden to mention. I devote a lot of time to reading that has nothing to do with my classes in college. I devote a lot of time to being active (running, hiking, i.e. working out)which is not tied my college.

  17. Rachel Sims says:

    While I agree that the idea behind grades is to provide incentive, I don’t think it would cause me to change my behavior too much. I do care about grades for grad school purposes, but for the most part, my grades are for me. I like to know that I get A’s, because then I know I did the best work I could, I satisfied the course requirements, and I probably came out of the course knowing more than I did when I went in. I love that feeling! But then again, maybe I’m a nerd. 🙂

    My major would most definitely stay the same. I love Political Science and I plan on basing my career off it. However, I am in the middle of deciding whether or not to finish my minor, and in this scenario there is a good chance that I would not (too many science courses for my taste!).

    I would also probably drop some of my activities. I use to really enjoy them, and at that time they were just for me, but I have recently realized that they have become a drain on my time and energy and I don’t view them as being valuable anymore. Because of Study Hacks, in fact, I have decided to drop them for the next semester.

    Really, really interesting topic!!

  18. I wouldn’t change a thing. Alright, maybe I wouldn’t have taken a few 100 level classes that were a waste of time, but many 100 classes can teach you things, especially if you are new to the topic.

    I believe that this scenario is actually somewhat true and if not, it should be true. When Cal says “activities” I am guessing he means activities that are filler to your resume. If you are web developer and you created a website, I believe you should put it on the resume.

    Society believes that all of these things matter, but in the end they don’t. I am a history and business major, but I could easily convince everyone that I am computer science or music major. I could actually see me getting a job with those two skills. College should be about education, and education should be about critical thinking. As of right now I am obsessed with learning, and no matter the topic, I look at it with a scholarly viewpoint.

    I believe the system could work without all these requirements, but the requirements must be replaced with a society dedicated to learning and understanding. And as current students we need to be the ones changing society. We cannot give in to this 5 page resume and 2 hours of sleep a night life.

  19. Chris Yeh says:

    Oddly enough, both Harvard and Stanford Business School apply this very principle. We are forbidden to talk about our grades (though we are allowed to talk about classes and activities). The only things you can do are graduate, graduate with distinction, or flunk out (verrrry difficult to do).

    At least at HBS, the net effect is that after the first set of midterms, a significant majority of the student population relaxes–they realize that they aren’t going to fail, and that there are enough better students that they’re not going to win distinction.

    Some folks focus on learning and getting the most out of the experience. Others opt for a life of hedonism. What you choose to do says a lot about your true character.

    My own approach was a compromise–I was willing to work for distinction, but not at the expense of anything else. I actually developed a system where I studied less than pretty much any other student at the school (I read all my cases on Saturday morning, and then didn’t bother looking back at them for the rest of the week). And hey, I did end up graduating as a Baker Scholar.

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