A few weeks ago, a friend told me about the concept of “Value Capture” – a phrase coined by Dr. Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah. Essentially, value capture occurs when a metric becomes the motivation for a certain behavior (Abstract and paper here.)
For example, instead of posting pictures on social media to simply share with family and friends, we become focused on and consumed by the number of likes or impressions we receive. I appreciate Dr. Nguyen providing well- researched phrasing to what I tried to articulate with fewer citations (but more puns) in my blog: “What are you Strava-ing for?”, which served as a confession that my running had been hijacked by the stats of a fitness app.
“Before I had this app, I rarely brought my phone with me on a run unless I needed the flashlight or wanted to listen to a podcast. Before I had the app, I’d come home with new ideas or perspective, or just feeling lighter (minus my legs) because I’d tuned out and refilled my proverbial cup. Lately, I’ve been coming back and checking to see my pace, achievements, and who else I know has run those segments. Even in the middle of runs, I’ve found myself thinking, “I need to PR (personal record—it tracks those too) this mile or loop.”
Not up for Dr. Nguyen’s 50+ page paper? In this 8-minute interview with best-selling author (Scarcity Brain and Comfort Crisis) and UNLV journalism professor, Michael Easter, they discuss the recognition of value capture as an invitation to continually check our motivations.
Why am I doing this?
What is driving me?
As a high school student, now is a common time to be selecting classes for next year. Beware of value capture. What are you chasing—the grade or the preparation? They are not the same.
Why am I re-taking the SAT/ACT? Because a school I’m applying to has a merit scholarship connected to a particular score range—value. Because if I get 20 points higher I’ll be able to beat my brother’s score to rub it in his face—capture!
Again: Why am I doing this? What is driving me? And have I lost sight of “my why” in exchange for chasing numbers- or the comparison to others?
Value Capture Meet College Admission
The more I read, listened, and thought about this framework, the more I realized the college admission experience (for everyone involved) is tailor- made to be value captured…and it has been—ohhh, how it has been.
“In value capture, we take a central component of our autonomy — our ongoing deliberation over the exact articulation of our values — and we outsource it. And the metrics to which we outsource are usually engineered for the interests of some external force, like a large-scale institution’s interest in cross-contextual comprehensibility and quick aggregability. That outsourcing cuts off one of the key benefits to personal deliberation. In value capture, we no longer adjust our values and their articulations in light of our own rich experience of the world. Our values should often be carefully tailored to our particular selves or our small-scale communities, but in value capture, we buy our values off the rack.”
Well, damn. There you have it. Let’s look at a few ways that students and colleges can be value captured- and how to keep this in check.
“And the metrics to which we outsource usually engineered for the interests of some external force, like a large-scale institution’s interest in cross-contextual comprehensibility and quick aggregability.”
Sheesh! Can you say, “US News and World Report?!” Students and families value going to a good school. They want a place where faculty care, students learn, and graduates get jobs (If this language is too technical, please let me know). All reasonable and commendable desires/ values. But if not checked we can effectively outsource critical and independent thinking for a simplified ordering of colleges.
Every year we hear stories from students who say they were discouraged from applying to schools ranked below number X; or decided only to apply to schools within the Top 10 in a particular field; or were pressured to ultimately choose the highest ranked school from which they received on offer of admission. No!
Instead of considering individual needs and wants; instead of asking big questions about the types of settings in which we best learn or thrive; instead of being confident enough to do our own research and ask the questions that most matter to us, “we buy our values off the rack.”
They call it the “College Search.” But that is not meant to be literal- as in one-click on Google to serve up prescribed list. SEARCH means within yourself. It means asking big questions not drawing little lines between numbers on a contrived list.
And what is particularly ironic about the “rackings” (definitely calling them that from here on out) dictating where you visit, apply, or ultimately attend, is the biggest factor in the US News rackings (Told you. See, I’m not even using quotes anymore) are not even numbers at all.
What? YEP, 20% of the methodology is generated from the opinions of people who work at other colleges.
What?! And to show you how little effort people put into these, only about 30% responded.
What!! In the end, 1500~ (1000 fewer than 30% of this blog’s subscribers) highly biased and self-serving people dictated numbers that generate millions of dollars annually. Disturbing. Deeply, deeply disturbing.
Value capture, people. Unshackle yourselves from the rackings by continually asking: Why am I doing this? What is driving me? And have I lost sight of “my why” in exchange for chasing numbers- or the comparison to others?
If you are a sophomore or a junior, try this map, rather than a list, to help you think differently.
If you are a senior, wanting to make a personalized versus prescribed decisions on where to ultimately attend, how about this quote from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement address: Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
“We are vulnerable to value capture because of the competitive advantage that such pre-packaged value expressions have in our reasoning and our communications. But when we internalize such metrics, we damage our own autonomy. In value capture, we outsource the process of deliberating on our values. And that outsourcing cuts off one of the key benefits of personal deliberation.”
Too many students and parents look at admit rates as a proxy for quality and take these numbers in isolation to make decisions and assumptions. Literally, this week I talked to a friend who cannot understand why his daughter is leaning toward one college to which she’s been admitted when she also got into a school that has an admit rate 2x lower. (Cough… value capture.)
Now I didn’t get all Nguyen-y about it, but I did ask him to consider why his daughter is more interested in one over the other– and why he’s having trouble reconciling this.
I also thought it was helpful to point out a few things about “admissions math:”
a. Denominator. Colleges don’t all count apps the same way, and can easily up their n. Some schools require a transcript, test scores, and a completed application with supplements to count as an app. Others? Well, you hit submit on a pre-populated form and then unsubscribe to all follow up comms… yea, we’ll go ahead and count that.
b. Numerator. Through binding Early Decision plans or other layered application deadlines, schools can radically depress their admit count because of the guaranteed enrollment of those admits. Sound like some dark Bayou magic math? Wave if you are following.
c. Still Numerator. Number of admits can be further decreased by intentionally waitlisting to gauge interest, deferring to watch engagement, or implementing other levers in the process.
Translation. You can’t trust the math. It’s not apples: apples. It’s fruity. But it’s not fruit.
The big question to be asking is: What do you value?
Perhaps the answer is: I want to go to a college that denies at least 3x more students than it admits because I value exclusion.
Or I am deeply committed to single digits. I’ve never had a uniform number above 9; I was born in a month prior to October; and I always measure people in feet rather than inches.
Sound ridiculous? Go online and buy a shirt that says, “I’ve been Value Freed!” If not, go here and sort by “Admission Rate.” Then find a shirt reading, “Olin = RISD” or “Berea > Bryn Mawr.”
Flipping the Mirror
Suffice it to say, when it comes to both the rankings and admit rate, colleges should be asking themselves the same questions.
Why are we doing this?
What is driving us?
And have we lost sight of “our why” in exchange for chasing numbers- or the comparison to others?
However, I’m not holding my breath to find the answers to those questions on any college’s mission statement, list of values, or strategic plan soon.
“Value capture occurs when an agent enters a social environment which presents external expressions of value — which are often simplified, standardized, and quantified — and those external versions come to dominate our reasoning and motivations.”
I believe you are more than an agent. I believe you have agency. And as a talented high school student and a future college student, there is no better time than now to embrace that distinction.