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When a status symbol loses its plausible deniability, how much power does it lose?

by Mati_Roy1 min read7th Jul 202012 comments


Social StatusSignalingWorld Modeling

For example, assuming Harvard is mostly a status symbol, if that became common knowledge, how much would the quality of its applicants drop?

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It's a stretch of the vocabulary, but Harvard and other elite institutions are a Schelling Point. Those with status send their kids there, because other people with status do so. Therefore, even if it were proven that the Harvatd education was equivalent to an average California State College, the nexus of networking opportunity would still give it significantly enhanced value.

Yup. When I was applying for grad schools, my advisor told me that 1. The main factor in what makes a school good is the quality of the grad students there; you learn the most from late-night conversations with your peers, and 2. The more prestigious, higher-ranked grad programs are where the best grad students will be, probably.

Maybe. But I'm a bit skeptical. I have the impression there are more time-efficient ways to meet high-status people.

2quanticle10moI don't think so, actually. The average age for entering Harvard, as an undergraduate is 18 years old. I don't think there's any faster way of meeting people who are likely to be influential. Even if you do something high-variance like starting a company, is that going to get you meeting the same sorts of people right away that getting into Harvard will? Probably not.

If that were true, and it became common knowledge (universal expectation that everyone else believes it), it would likely reduce the number of people willing to pay that much by quite a bit.

It's probably not true (it's one component of value, but likely not the majority), and there's a lot of emotional investment in not believing it even if it were. so I suspect this is not a world we'll find ourselves in.

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I'm curious as to why you think it would drop at all. Or that people don't already know that it's a status symbol.

There's an interview I've heard with Supreme Court Justice Scalia where he says he only looks at clerks from the big law schools. Paraphrasing him but something to the effect of "I don't have time to take a chance on looking at other schools" Other places could have perfectly good clerks, but there was too great a chance that they weren't.

I don't know that I agree with his thought process, but I understand it. I don't think he had any illusions about it being a status symbol. Indeed that was exactly why he was using it.

I think what you mean is what would happen if people knew it was "incorrectly" a status symbol. The answer to that would depend on, not only, why they made that determination *and* what the alternatives are. For example, if people think Harvard grads are 5 times better than other grads, but some bad publicity happens and now people only think Harvard grads are 3 times better than other grads....they'll be OK. :)

hummmm, I guess I was implicitly thinking that it was an inefficient signaling tool. An SAT test, a Bitcoin address, your Facebook friend list, and a portfolio seem more time-efficient for example (simplifying a bit)

Being costly (and inefficient) is part of what makes something a good signal for status. 

I'm not sure if this reference will work,but...

If you think you can "Moneyball" status and hire Harvard caliber people without paying Harvard caliber wages, then the "Moneyball" story suggests people will follow that model pretty quickly.


By status symbol, are you saying that the Harvard graduate is literally no more skilled than the average person? Real status symbols are generally correlated with reality (the expensive car is, well, expensive and most people can't afford it).

If there was zero correlation I think it would stop being seen as a status symbol eventually. If going to Harvard was widely seen as a status bid like buying a sports car, but the signal retained some value (like having to do an IQ test, for simplicity's sake) then it wouldn't matter that it was about status.

The claim that Harvard is just a status symbol is that the entire variance in success from attending Harvard is explained by the two factors of 1) the characteristics of individual people entering the program, and 2) the prestige from being able to claim they graduated.

This seems implausible - so to extend this, I'd say all of the variance can be explained by those two plus a third factor, 3) the value of networking with Harvard students, faculty and staff.

In either case, the central point is that benefit from the services provided by Harvard are unrelated to the education they claim to provide.

Ah. Then I don't think it matters.

Employers will still want to hire Harvard students. Networking means employers won't even get a chance to consider other candidates, and when they do, the halo of status means other candidates won't be considered fairly.

Students already treat college as a "you are now employable" stamp machine. Yes, a few don't. They might stop going to Harvard, news which I'm sure the other [95.5% of applicants](https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2019/3/29/2023-admit-numbers/#:~:text=A record-low 4.50 percent,securing places in the class.) will receive with joy. Employers won't care if Harvard is the top 4.5% or the top 9%; I bet the average person couldn't even tell you if Harvard skims off the top .1% or 10%. They just feel that Harvard is "prestigious".