Education and skin in the game

A close friend recently told me that they learned more in the first year after college than they did during their four years in college.

This is a failure of the college system, and it stems from a lack of skin in the game.

Nassim Taleb defines having “skin in the game” as a “morally mandatory heuristic that anyone involved in an action which can possibly generate harm for others, even probabilistically, should be required to be exposed to some damage, regardless of context.”1

It’s the reason he ridicules economists, consultants, and every other flavor of theoreticians: they pass risk onto others while remaining unaffected by the potential damage of their advice. Having “skin in the game” is not only an ethical imperative, its a means to distribute and thereby reduce (or at least not hide) risk.

The problem with colleges and universities is that when it comes to their students’ post-graduation success, they don’t have skin in the game.

When graduates fail to find jobs, the schools are unaffected. The risk that a college provides a poor education – that the classes are unhelpful, or misleading, or simply do not adequately prepare students for thoughtful life and work – is borne entirely by the student. The student risks unemployment, or bad employment, or (worst of all) being swallowed into academia. None of these scenarios harm the school (except, perhaps, creating dull grad school parties). Conversely, the institution profits from successful alumnae in the form of donations and reputation-by-association.

Without skin in the game, without shared risk, universities are less incentivized to ensure the success of their graduates.

This is also the reason that so many graduates find a rather sharp learning curve upon entering the working world: the companies that employ them have skin in the game. If the employee is untrained and makes mistakes, then the company suffers. Both employee and company share the risk that the company’s training and development resources are adequate.

Interestingly, there has been an educational model around for thousands of years whereby the educator has skin in the game regarding their student’s success: the apprenticeship.

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