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Ever since the beginning of the homeschooling movement, homeschoolers have had a dilemma: how to get official recognition of the educational achievements of homeschooled children. Such official recognition is necessary, among other reasons, because employers need ways to discriminate between good and bad hires, and for a long time now a college diploma has been an easy signal of employee quality. (Even if the informational value of college degrees is declining in recent years… but that’s a different discussion.) Colleges, in turn, need some way to tell whether applicants are good students or not. What this means is that after having escaped the rigid quantification of traditional schools, homeschoolers need another way to signal their educational quality.

From the examples I’ve seen, many homeschoolers have addressed this problem by turning to community colleges.

Community colleges generally cater to adult students, as well as traditional students who want to take their general ed requirements more cheaply than a traditional college would cost. This eclectic student base means that entrance requirements end up being fairly permissive: if you show up, you can take a class. This is a boon to homeschoolers, who can rapidly accumulate college credits even without previous formal schooling, enabling them to get the credentials they need to go on to more prestigious colleges if they choose to.

Aside from how interesting this story is in itself, the reason I’m writing about it here is as an example of a larger tendency. Often, institutions that are set up for one reason provide unexpected possibilities, and get used by other people for reasons that no one anticipated. The idea that community colleges would be a key building block in the advancing subversion of the traditional primary education system was on nobody’s mind when they were created, I’m sure.

Similar examples in the same vein are many:  FDIC deposit guarantees, meant to protect bank deposits in the event of a bank failure, are now being used to underwrite market-traded instruments like equity-linked CDs. Agriculture subsidies ostensibly meant to defend the family farmer instead allow massive agri-processors like Monsanto and ADM to capture the market. And of course the 800-pound gorilla, the Internet, originally conceived as a way for military command-and-control to persist in the event of a nuclear strike.

The point is that a new institution creates new possibilities (or can close them off), and the new structured environment will give rise to behaviors that are hard to anticipate. This is one of the reasons why ambitious government interventions often have perverse effects: no one knows what the outcome of a policy change will be, because no one understands the full possibilities of the new system until people have a chance to play around with it. On the positive side, new institutions like the Internet or public capital markets are constantly giving rise to startling new behaviors, as innovations accumulate and interact with each other.

Homeschooling thus far hasn’t managed to compete seriously with traditional college, though it can compellingly compete with K-12 school. Part of that is because no one has yet figured out how to provide a credential that can do the job now done by a college degree. The time may not be far off, however. As college degrees become more expensive and less useful, more and more people are looking for alternatives. In one stark example, Peter Thiel is offering $100,000 fellowships for students not to go to college. Eventually, I suspect, traditional colleges will face as much competition as lower grades already do today. And the enabling factor may well be some institution whose possibilities are imperfectly comprehended today.