Credentialism is just as screwed up as corporatism

"Death by Degrees," a thoughtful piece in N+1, compares the inherent injustice in a system rigged to produce unequal wealth distributions to the injustice in a system that demands expensive, time-consuming higher education in order to access professional and political life. The authors present this as a blind spot for the left, who criticize poor people for falsely identifying with the monied class and its politics, but who believe that charges of elitism in the left are just knee-jerk anti-intellectualism. They argue that elitism is very real, and, like the barriers to economic justice in labor law and politics, it is an oppressive system of credentialism that concentrates power and access in the same way. In a nutshell: "When we ask ourselves whether populist hostility should be directed against the rich or against the professional elite, the answer must be, 'Yes, please!'"

Today, we take it for granted that practicing medicine or law requires years of costly credentialing in unrelated fields. In the law, the impact of all this “training” is clear: it supports a legal system that is overly complicated and outrageously expensive, both for high-flying corporate clients who routinely overpay and for small-time criminal defendants who, in the overwhelming majority of cases, can’t afford to secure representation at all (and must surrender their fate to local prosecutors, who often send them to prison). But just as a million-dollar medical training isn’t necessary to perform an abortion, routine legal matters could easily, and cheaply, be handled by noninitiates.

The standardization of these professional guilds benefited undergraduate institutions immensely, a fact that was not lost on university administrators. College presidents endorsed the Hopkins model and the AMA’s consolidation of medical authority for good reason: in the mid-19th century, bachelor’s degrees in the United States were viewed with skepticism by the private sector, and colleges had a hard time finding enough students. The corporate-sponsored consolidation of the medical establishment changed undergraduate education from a choice to a necessity. Where once there was indifference, now there was demand: “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” the child in the PSA says. “I want to go to college.”

No administration has embodied credentialism as thoroughly as the current one. Of Obama’s first thirty-five cabinet appointments, twenty-two had a degree from an Ivy League university, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Oxford, or Cambridge. No one would advocate staffing the country’s ministries with wealthy imbeciles, as was the custom under George W. Bush; but the President — a meritocrat himself — has succumbed to what might be called the “complexity complex,” which leads us to assume that public policy is so complicated that you need a stack of degrees to figure it out. But major political questions are rarely complex in that sense. They are much more likely to be complicated, in the Avril Lavigne sense, meaning that they involve reconciling disagreements among competing stakeholders — or, as the situation may demand, ratcheting them up.

Death by Degrees (via Making Light)

(Image: Stats about student debt, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from siwc's photostream)


  1. Credentialism is just as screwed up as corporatism?I don’t think so. One is clearly more beneficial to society. Not saying it’s perfect, but get real.

    1. The original article mentioned how credentialism in China lead to the Taiping Rebellion, with 20 million people having died. Just FYI.

      1.  How elitist. You expect people to read the linked articles just to be able to understand the context of the headline?

      2. And how many people die from the incompetence of nepotism, cronyism (implied as negative characteristics of ‘corporatism’) as opposed to an ivy league degree? 

        1. Since when are “nepotism” and “cronyism” somehow a distinct and non-overlapping set with “ivy league degree”?

        2. Replying here, because I can’t reply down below for some reason…

          “Since when did I claim they were “distinct and non-overlapping”?”

          That generally a reasonable inference if one’s interlocuter is using the phrase “as opposed to.” Because, you know, that is setting things up in opposition, as opposed to shared sets. Shared sets as in, “nepotism,” “cronyism,” and “ivy league degree.” 

          1. Oh good grief. Then yes, in this one and only instance of hypotheticality, let’s pretend to just examine how many people died from (very and absolutely literally) an Ivy League Degree (maybe they received a paper cut that became infected?) versus (i.e.; in opposition to, as opposed to, and excluding all and every other thing in the multiverse) nepotism, cronyism. 

          2. Oh good grief yourself. My point was a very simple one: that a significant portion of Ivy League degrees are earned through nepotism and cronyism (and that many folks with Ivy League degrees continue in their careers engaging in nepotism and cronyism). You’re off on some weird tangent that I won’t even bother to respond to because I’m not even sure what it is. 

      3. But this is a strange point, because the Taiping Rebellion wasn’t part of credentialism. It came about in reaction to it, not as a development from it; and after that, how much of the horrific conflict really had to do with that part of the Chinese system?

        In a similar sense it was czarism that led to the Russian revolution, again with millions of people having died. It definitely happened because of faults with Nicholas’s rule, but how much of that blood is on his hands?

        And is this sort of extreme case really what we’re talking about? When we compare to how screwed up corporatism is, is Mussolini a good example, or should we stick to their ills in the present context?

        (Edit: And if we’re advocating populist hostility to professional elites, is the Taiping Rebellion also an example of that?)

        1. Not to mention that the Tai Ping rebellion had tremendous support from foreign commercial interests (remember the opium wars, anyone?).
          There wasn’t much left of the “credentialism” in China at that point anyhow. Most important positions were hereditary.

      4. If credentialism led to the Taiping Rebellion at all, it was but one small factor. Regional tensions, ethnic tensions, economic tensions, new ideologies, the stress of dealing with Western trade/culture. There was a lot going on in the Taiping rebellion. I’ve only read one book on it, and few articles, but I don’t recall any of them mentioning credentialism as a factor, beyond the fact that Hong Xiuquan washing-out in his government exams.

      5.  Sounds like missionaries led to it.  Not sure what “A consensus emerged among the converts that it was Hong’s destiny to build a heavenly kingdom purged of sexual depravity.” had to do with failing exams.

    2. Let’s see, I have a choice between the heavily trained and credentialed doctor and the one who rebelled against the system and skipped all that.  Which one do I choose?  Hmmmm

  2. This is so dumb. There is a big difference between “credential inflation” which means that everyone needs a degree to get a decent job and the requirement that professionals like lawyers, engineers or doctors face strict requirements to prove their competence and expertise because their decisions make the difference between life and death. 

    This strikes me as the latest version of Milton Friedman’s free-market complaint about doctors, which was wrong-headed even then. 

    One of the biggest differences between 19th and 20th century medicine is that 20th century medicine actually worked. There was no anaesthetic until about 1850. 

    100 years ago there were no diagnostic imaging tools, no antibiotics, no antivirals, no insulin, no vaccines against polio, smallpox and other diseases, no one knew what vitamins were or how they worked. It was thinly veiled quackery, and there are still plenty of dangerous quacks out there whose useless treatments will leave people dead if they’re allowed to peddle them.

    The same is true of engineers, who need to build safe bridges and buildings, and even of lawyers in government. 

    Political problems are not simply a question of mediation. To be enacted, they need to be written into law, and that requires fitting them into an existing regulatory and legal framework in such a way that it conforms to existing laws, the constitution, so that it can actually stand up (please see Obamacare). 

    This is one of the areas in society where hard work, brains and talent are well-paid because they are in short supply. 

    1. The bit about doctors struck me as odd too but if you read the whole piece it’s not attacking the idea of credentialed doctors (which is obviously a good and necessary thing). It’s described because it’s an important historical step leading to the present state of unnecessary credentialism. Doctors, engineers, and even lawyers we can probably all agree should require proper credentials.

      The piece is not about those fields where having credentials is necessary. It’s about everything else, where credentials in the form of degrees should not usually be necessary, and people go into ridiculous debt to obtain unnecessary credentials just to get a shitty entry-level job that requires no specialized knowledge and that pays way less than it should.

    2. “This is one of the areas in society where hard work, brains and talent are well-paid because they are in short supply.”

      They are in short supply because the guild called the AMA artificially limits the number of doctors allowed to practice in the United States.  There are thousands (if not tens of thousands) of qualified doctors and health care professionals who trained abroad who are unable to practice medicine in the United States.  This is partly to do with the difficulties in getting work visas, but much more to do with the fact that you are not allowed to practice medicine unless you have completed a residency.  And you can’t get a residency unless you graduate from an American medical school.  Yes, this ensures quality control, but if that were the main issue, there are far more efficient ways to achieve the same end.

      The AMA also limits competition by requiring that certain work has to be done by a doctor, when a nurse or other (less expensive) health care professional could do it just as well.  You see this in dentistry, too, where dental hygenists are usually required to operate in clinics run by full dentists.  This artificially limits competition for dentists and raises their income, while at the same time raising prices for everyone else.

      Bottom line: there is no free market in health care.  And we all pay the costs of it.

      1. There are thousands (if not tens of thousands) of qualified doctors and health care professionals who trained abroad who are unable to practice medicine in the United States.

        We used to have foreign doctors and other highly-trained specialists working as phlebotomists in the hospital. Then they fired all the phlebotomists and trained the nurses’ aides to do it.

        1.  For those who don’t know, phlebotomists are the people who draw blood samples. It’s the lowest rung on the hospital hierarchy (just above something you’d scrape off your shoe), usually requires no credentials, and pays minimum wage or a bit more.

      2. The numbers of qualified doctors from outside the US is limited. But more significantly, the numbers of available places in American medical schools is severely curtailed, as well as the numbers of accredited medical schools. This is a conscious action to limit the supply of doctors and maintain exclusivity and control pricing.

        1.  True, but there is an even bigger filter in vanishingly small number of residencies needed to go into the most lucrative specialties such as eye surgery and cardiology.

          Another limit to competition is that medical licenses and hospital privileges do not transfer automatically between US states, but require reams of paperwork, evidence of not only all credentials but of all continuing education requirements being met over the doctor’s entire career, letters of reference from every hospital at which the doctor has ever worked  for even one week and even full-day comprehensive standardized testing in general medicine subjects irrelevant to many specialists. (I’ve seen all of that required even for a double-board certified, double ivy-league degreed, 35-year experienced regional medical center chief of staff to be allowed to fill in while another doctor takes a two-week vacation.) 

          (And even if one has done all that in several states,  trying to practice in the UK will require all that plus two separate in-person retests separated by a period of months, while far less qualified  EU and commonwealth doctors can virtually waltz in.)

          Just having a standardized federal system for professional licensure, credential validation, work history, and malpractice complaints could make a big difference. Making treaties to recognize other countries’ credentials would do even more.

    3. I should add that the US has far fewer doctors per 1000 people than most other developed countries.  I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that is not because the US has less hard work, brains, and talent than, say Greece or the Czech Republic.

      Also, the number of doctors in America has barely increased over the past 30 years, despite the fact that the population has increased by over 82 million, and the country is over twice as wealthy, in real GDP terms.

    4.  Thank you. There authors of this article confuse elitism in credentials with credentials themselves. As you point out, these often exist because we need people to have them. This is only one of many absurdities in the article. I am amazed Cory Doctorow found the argument compelling. Did he read it?

      1. I didn’t see a conflation of elitism in credentials with credentials themselves.  Yes, the author does get a little bit sloppy in a few places, and I can see where you might take that away.  But what I read was a concern (a legitimate one, I think), that there is a *societal* conflation of those two things, with the upshot that it’s not good enough to understand the law (which in theory should be provable by passing the bar exam regardless of any schooling); you have to have a law degree.  And as time passes, the bar (no pun intended) is raised by jealous elitists until it’s not enough that you have a law degree; you have to have a Harvard law degree.  Over time, you’ll have to be in the top half of your class at Harvard Law, then the top tenth.  And most importantly, only those who can afford to pay for the tutoring and all that nonsense can ever get there.

        I have seen a distressing amount of evidence that we have, as a society, become utterly enslaved to certification at the expense of wisdom.  The plague of standardized testing in public schools is a great example.  We squander our meager school resources teaching to bad tests that don’t measure anything that matters.  Then the best and the brightest move on to the SAT, on which you get a high score if your parents can pay for the test prep course and tutoring, and you probably don’t if they can’t.

        Then from there it goes on to college degrees, training certificates, and in many cases, “credentials” that have no relevance to the jobs being sought by their holders.  When the IT department requests the HR department to recruit a UNIX systems administrator, why do they advertise for someone with a Microsoft A+ certification?  Because they don’t understand the difference, and they want a way to weed out applicants.

        I’m not fundamentally opposed to credentialing. But it certainly has gone off the rails into elitism, and in too many cases, irrelevance.

    5. Well, who cares what you have to say in this blog?  You don’t even have an undergraduate degree in Blogology!  I’m afraid that, until you complete an accredited  five-year course that includes such topics as the development of the QWERTY keyboard, the history of “The Well” bulletin board, and the 15 kinds of InterNet Trolls, we just can’t take you seriously.

  3. I don’t entirely disagree that “credentialism” is out of hand.  When I was younger, I got promoted.  There was a technician (I’m an engineer) that I worked a lot with that I was completely confident would be able to do my job, and even do some bits of it better than I could have.  The kid was sharp as hell, learned everything on the first attempt,  was amazingly motivated, extremely likable, and able to get along with everyone.  He could have taken my job over and hit the ground running in a week because he already knew more or less everything he needed to do it.  I pushed hard to have him be my replacement.  

    In the end, we hired someone else for double the price, and I was told flat out it was because that someone else had a degree and the guy who could do the job from day one did not.  The replacement took months to train and to this day (years later) isn’t as competent as the guy who I wanted to install.  Further, the guy who I wanted to have the job is wasting away in a position that is well below his talent and likely will for the rest of his life.  It is maddening.  To make matters worse, the degree doesn’t do anything.  For the most part, you really just need a certain type of mindset that is associated with the degree.  The actual stuff you “learn” in the degree is more or less useless.

    All of that said, there is some sanity in “credentialism”.  The simple fact of the matter is that what outsourcing started automation is finishing.  The number of jobs in this world is going to go down.  Machines are going to take over more and more.  The remaining jobs that can only be done by humans is going to shrink.  It is going to be like a rising tide with everyone clawing their way up to the top for the last few jobs that have economic worth.  The US has already been hit with the first round of this that killed off manufacturing.  China is now starting to suffer the same.  The natural response for people who see the tide coming in is to try and look useful, hence the credential hording.

    This isn’t a bad thing in the end the game.  The end game is human work has no value so people don’t do “work” for any other reason than enjoyment (see Iain Banks culture novels  It is utopia, but the path to utopia is ugly.  Our current society doesn’t have the mechanisms in place to deal with a shrinking demand for human labor.

    1. If, years and years later, the lack of a degree still has the technician working a job significantly below his abilities and experience and he has shown no interest in getting the degree then he wasn’t too smart to start with.

      The degree does do something. It lets you get better jobs which require a degree. Yes, it is a circular argument. And in a perfect world would not be necessary. But this is not a perfect world.

      Is taking time off to get a degree that you don’t ‘need’ smart? I have to say it is smarter than spending decades having the lack of a piece of paper hold you back.

      1. Some of us choose not to play into the system on principle. Quite the presumption you make about a person’s intelligence for doing their part to fight off the monster.

          1. I call it dealing with reality. If the reality is that you are dead ended without a degree and it is possible to get one but you choose not to, then you reap the benefits (or lack thereof) of your choices.

      2. You have a limited time on the planet, and forcing someone to go through four to eight years of redundant training just to get a piece of paper that proves that he can take tests and sit still does nothing but waste said technicians time and move the goalposts further and further.

        1. I’m all for “testing out” when possible. I did it for a required college biology class – bought the text  book, read it in a day, took the test, returned the book, got a B.

          I’d have to say though, I consider at least 75% of the college courses I took were valuable, not only in content, but also because they required intense, focused study.

          That ability has allowed me to keep up with the ever-changing skill set needed to be successful in today’s work environment.

        2. I do get the point of the argument in knowledge vs. certification of said knowledge, but:  If you go through 4 or 8 years of schooling and get nothing but “a price of paper,” then you’re doing it wrong.  I learned in college.  I learned a lot.

          1. Thank you! Jesus Christ. There is CERTAINLY a difference between “anti-corporatism” and “anti-intellectualism.” The latter is burned into the American psyche; the former is heresy against the state religion.

          2.  Schooling interferes with self-directed learning just by the amount of time taken, but also by fostering a mindset that is incompatible with self-directed learning. Anything that will not be on the test is seen as irrelevant at best. Far more learning takes place in the self-directed scheme, so schooling can paradoxically result in less education.

          3. Replying to Ultan:  That depends very dramatically on the student in question.  Also, my college experience didn’t match your stereotype.  I had lots of situations where we learned material that wasn’t on the test, just because the professors thought it was cool stuff.

          4. @GTMoogle:disqus  — I don’t think the tendency to ignore that which will not be on the test is necessarily prevalent in professors.  It is rampant, however, in students! (And increasingly epidemic also in public schools as the scourge of standardized testing spreads).
            BookGuy and Ultan: so would it be fair to say, then, that the real problem is not formal education, but rather the notion that formal education is the only accepted method of obtaining knowledge and skill?

        3. My degree is very much of the ‘piece of paper’ variety, however going to university opened other doors than carrier options. I don’t think I’d be the same person today if I hadn’t gone to university. It’s not some isolated test environment, there are other reasons that employers like graduates; having the drive, dedication and commitment to a subject to study it for a few years only being a part of it.

      3. “Smart” isn’t a binary thing.  You can be a literary genius and not be able to balance a checkbook.  You can be a mathematical genius and have type e-mails in all caps with no punctuation.  You can be a hard working but unimaginative person who sails through college but crashes when someone asks you apply yourself creativity in the working world.

        The point is that going to college is just an indicator that the person in question is thinking ahead and is likely somewhat competent in something.  If you know nothing about two people, going for the one with a degree is probably the statistically smart thing to do.  However, once you know something about someone, still flinching for someone with a degree is stupid.  You are not guessing based upon limited data anymore.  You KNOW something, and so  you should go ahead and use knowledge when making decisions.

        That said, they guy in question doesn’t disagree and is getting a degree.  Getting a degree after the fact though is a much more painful thing than getting it on the first pass.  You might enter the work world with the delusion that merit alone is enough and not realize it isn’t until you hit your thirties and, despite nothing but glowing reviews, remaining stuck.  Have you considered what it is like to, when 30+ go back and grab a BS?  It is non-trivial, which is why the super majority of people do it when they are young have absolutely no attachments.  Most adults find taking 4 years off of life to grab a degree to be very hard, if not impossible.

        1. Which is why I’m going to wait until 80 to back to college to finish my degree:)

          1. I’d quite like to do an interesting degree when I retire. But as I currently live in a university city it’s quite easy to just wander into lectures if I want anyway, so I must just do that and print off my own certificate.

        2. “Smart” isn’t a binary thing, but it is a real and very important thing for choosing who to hire. Degrees – especially from the more prestigious institutions – are practically speaking a proxy for SATs and other standardized tests, which in turn are proxies for IQ, which is the second most reliable single predictor of job performance in all but the lowest-complexity types of jobs, better than experience, resume, references, interviews, any other kind of tests, and only a little less reliable than than an actual work sample. (Having both is even better. The top three dual-component predictors all use IQ as one of the components.)  But most employers feel that they cannot use IQ directly because it might be seen as discriminatory.

          But education by itself is not a good predictor of job performance – years of education has a validity of just 0.1 compared to IQ at 0.51.

          (See for instance: “The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings” by Schmidt and Hunter, Psychological Bulletin 1998)

      4. Also consider that for those who are older, you have responsibilities to family to keep earning a reasonable living….perhaps even elderly parents to take care of.  Couple this with advancing age, you simply don’t have the time to keep buying more credentials.

      5. Some people can’t drop their jobs and families for four years and take out $40,000 in loans to pursue a completely arbitrary and basically useless certification for a job he might not be offered when he finishes. That’s the entire point: This is unfair.

        1. And that’s exactly why the original article is wrong:  it confuses getting a degree with paying a shitton of money to do so.  First of all, if learning stuff isn’t fun, ur doin it rong.  Next,  as many others pointed out,  a degree does (or should, so long as it’s not from some online degree mill) indicate some level of competence.   I do agree w/ the concept that demonstrated experience on the job should be an equally valid basis for advancement.

          1. There are plenty of jobs where this is the case though; generally speaking if your skill can be proven through experience then it counts for a lot, at least from what I’ve seen.

            My degree is next to irrelevant in my chosen career path, but no one wants to know about my degree, they want to see what I’ve done.

            Ironically throughout my career I found a lack of experience to be hugely prohibitive in the beginning, a degree meant Jack shit. I can’t help but think that jobs that demand a degree do so for a reason. You can hardly sit a candidate down to prove his knowledge in something that requires a degree if his skill can’t easily be demonstrated by experience. Or her, of course.

      6. Four years plus is more than just some ‘time off’. Besides, once you’re working for a living paying for college on your own dime gets less and less feasible. 

      7. Sometimes it’s not that easy. Degrees are extraordinarily expensive and require a lot of time. And it’s a risk, too, especially as getting the degree usually requires taking on debt.  Not everyone is so footloose and fancy free as to be able to get the piece of paper.  I know quite a few brilliant and talented women who are stuck in dead-end jobs because they have families who need things like healthcare and food today, not four years from now. 

        And it’s to the detriment of the economy if talented, competent people are passed over for incompetents who have the right piece of paper. 

      8. Your argument implies that getting a degree is an option.  If you’re living on the edge with the job you have, where are you going to get the tens of thousands of dollars needed to pay for a college education?

    2. That was a wonderful read. I also appreciate the technological utopia that you linked to. I’ve been convinced that this is where Humanity is going and that we’ll be forced to move from capitalism to communism simply because the useful jobs for Humans will disappear. In that, I also feel as if the amount of technology available to a culture is what should determine where it falls on the line between the two. America is gaining socialist elements, but more by necessity than anything else. We should probably be a little bit closer to the socialist side, really.

      1. We should be much closer to the socialist side, not just a little bit. Most of America is a total dump and most Americans have a shitty future to look forward to, with very little chance of improvement no matter how hard they try.

      2. America has had socialist elements before (and much more influential and vociferous) although you wouldn’t know it from the propagandised, one-sided view of history promoted these days. Who is to say they may not be lost again.

    3. Economic output is what has value. Everything else is a means for figuring out who has justifiable claims to which part of the value. If economic output stops having a significant human effort component (labour), then value will be assigned to the technology that does generate it (capital). Considering that one will then effectively be unable to use labour to earn capital (though one could use capital to generate the income necessary to acquire more capital), and that private ownership of capital has been demonstrably superior than all alternatives, the question then becomes about which principles we will use for (at least initial) capital allocation.

    4. The “digital divide” contributes to the situation as well.  If you don’t come from a family with access to a PC and the internet, all of your technical training comes from school (and the tech programs in most schools are under-funded).

      There may be some high schools out there that offer the kind of technical instruction that would allow an 18-year-old graduate to apply for a job in an IT or engineering field.  Mostly this function is filled by community colleges.If you can’t afford a community college’s fees, no matter how reasonable, you’re screwed.   Unless of course you are eligible to enlist and let the military pay for your technical training.

      Most civilians don’t realize that the teeth to tail ratio (#of combat personnel:# of support/technical personnel) is about 1:25.   Those 25 medics, mechanics, engineers, data processors, truck drivers, airframe maintenance personnel and satellite operators have a skill when they hit their EAS.

      The last IT job I had, we had exactly one black engineer, and he was a former Marine.  The last IT job but one that I had, our sole non-Caucasian engineer was American Indian, and he was ex-Army.

  4. I think a more well-rounded education — in science, history, the arts, more science, studies of other cultures, a lot of reading on several topics and genres of fiction, and a bit more science just to make sure — would make better politicians.

    1. Agreed. If politicians got more educated, they’d learn that they’re actually part of the problem and quit.

    2. I’ve always found it amusing that you can be educated in politics. I don’t want a politician, I want a representative, ideally one that knows about what they’re in charge of. (I’m looking at you, Theresa May)

  5. “But major political questions are rarely complex in that sense.”
    Balderdash. Major political questions are so complex that even those WITH stacks of degrees aren’t able to properly untangle the mess of interrelated considerations that must be addressed to avoid unintended consequences.

    Those who think it simple are either highly arrogant, highly ignorant, or both.

    1. If the answers seem impossible to find, you’re probably asking the wrong set of questions.

      1. Wasn’t it MacArthur who said: when you fail at divide and conquer, you have to make the problem bigger to find the solution.

      2. Yet, just because you have “an answer” doesn’t guarantee it is the right solution to the question, or even that it is the right question in the first place.

        It’s not hard to make a list of “it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time” policies that had negative and unintended consequences.

        1. You’re right on both counts, of course. But I did not say “if something looks like it makes sense, you definitely understand it”, and I did add the “probably” qualifier. Indeed, pithiness almost always comes at the cost of universality…

          It’s a pretty good heuristic, however. And since, as you yourself said, politics “are so complex that even those WITH stacks of degrees aren’t able to properly untangle the mess of interrelated considerations” – since so many political issues seem intractable – chances are we’re doing politics wrong.

  6. just bidness

  7. There are plenty of critiques of credentialism, professionalism, and the “coordinator” or techno-managerial class on  the left.  Read Suzann Rosenthall, Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel, Jeff Schmidt, etc. . .

  8. This discussion is another great example of Godwin’s Law in action. 

    My trouble with the article is it once again solely focuses on the elite/Ivy schools as exemplars of the credential creep.  That’s a problem for the 1%.  The vast majority of us got our degrees from lesser-named institutions, but received a quality education. (at least I did).  Is there credential creep outside of the elites  Of course, but the example of Supreme Court clerkships is not illustrative of it.

    Look, I’m biased because I work in higher education, but the solution appears to me not to be dismantling the “credential machine” but rather in creating multiple paths to specific micro-credentials.  Think competency-based assessments, badges, sub-baccalaureate credentials specific to the workplace.  Frankly, that’s the way to break the cost spiral of tuition.

    1. Or, even, just fire all the useless administrators, reduce tuition to what it was before they started hiring them.

      Problem solved as far as tuition cost.

      1. Except that people use price as a signal of quality.  If one college lowers its headline tuition while peer institutions keep theirs the same, people are unlikely to flock to the cheaper one, because they rarely pay the headline tuition price anyway.  The majority of students get some discount off of the sticker price.  No, instead, the school that lowers the headline tuition is more likely to be perceived as being the discount option and losing its ability to attract the better students.

  9. So, if it’s the responsibility of the people with degrees to burn their degrees, then it’s the responsibility of the people with money to burn their money. right? One without the other seems little dangerous. Unless the underprivileged and intelligentsia decided together to abandon the economic system where rich people own stuff, something like a communist revolution I guess. Of course, then there’s a new system and a new set of rules to be gamed.
    The egalitarian utopia only comes when the people in power use their power to create a system where no one can rise above another. But no one ever thinks far enough ahead to the next economic revolution wherein their progeny have the same chance of landing on top as anyone else and once again the new elites are sure they deserve their position and before you know it we’re all welcoming our new robot overlords. Nice one, Obama.

  10. I’ve been chewing on this very thought for a while now, being of an age where the contemplation of additional educational attainment vis a via the job market and personal interests is looming large in the minds of my peers. It’s a mess.

    I have a friend who recently worked in the “admissions” department of a for-profit online university, which gobbled up a 300 student liberal arts school and uses the accreditation of said university as an umbrella for 78,000 online students. 83% of said students will not finish their degree. Essentially all will finance their adventure with debt, to the tune of $40K, shoveled, in 83% of cases, into a furnace. The litany of nighmarish phone calls my friend was compelled to make, before they quit and saved their soul, is endless- calls five times a day to 60-year old butchers who had to be coached through using a mouse and a printer to fill out their admissions paperwork…to an online school.

    On the flip side, I have a younger friend attending a well respected, private brick and mortar college that provides generally well respected training in law, the arts, and math, spending $40,000 on a degree from their freshly inaugurated (by popular demand) program in Hospitality Management, which is apparently a sufficiently discreet field from the rest of normal humans affairs to warrant four years of classroom time…financed by working up the ranks of a local restaurant.

    And then there are all the friends with obviously superior aptitude and drive to the couple of Ivy attendees from my high school class, who elected to go to state schools for any of a thousand reasons- money, not wanting to wait on a few-percent-admission roulette spin that could hinge on a single decimal point from the day they elected to go swimming instead of taking a forgotten quiz, and often, because the state school had empirically supportable superior performance in some field or another- and who are now finding their logical reasoning is not being substantiated when doors immediately open for Ivy grads.

    It has nothing to do with education not being valuable or personally enriching- I fully buy into all the business about well rounded citizens and spending some years cultivating the life of the mind and the necessities of increased education in an increasingly complex world. Nor do I think there are really practical or efficient methods for acquiring, say, a training in biochemistry without something like a university and a degree. And I absolutely, positively, do not subscribe to the notion that the value of college is determined solely by the fraction of skills that transfer directly into however you end up paying your rent. I’d be pretty miserable if my intellectual life was that narrow.

    Still- this is a classical bubble. The ratio of the the college-degree income premium to student debt has been steadily diminishing. Aspirational students, financiers, employers, and school has clearly gotten into a self-referential loop and overshot the value of the single line of the resume. The data is pretty clear that business students don’t have demonstrably superior business management skills over any other degree, much less people with a history of working in a given business- so I’d eat my hat if the proliferation of expensive four-year vocational degrees merit their cost- either in dollars or time spent away from an interesting life (or a more interesting and diverse education.) Side by side comparisons of Ivy coursework and post collegiate aptitude are equal suggestive that the single most important thing learned at Harvard is the value of the Harvard name in opening doors.

    I have no idea what the alternative looks like- the replacement of private debt instruments with public financing and corresponding cost caps, or some new information-wants-to-be-free throwing open of the gates, or what- but it’ll happen, smoothly and creatively or otherwise.

  11. I went to a top university, and absolutely loved it. Learnt a tonne of stuff and met a bunch of really bright people. Getting a piece of paper which allowed me to find a job where I could learn stuff and work with more really bright people was a definite bonus.

    The credentialism whines seem to fall in two camps:
    1) It costs. Well, don’t be American, then. Sadly, free university education seems to be on the way out elsewhere, but hardly anywhere is ridiculous as the US.
    2) It takes time. If you want to learn stuff and gain experience, and your degree isn’t the fastest way to do this, your course is rubbish.

    There is also the issue of employers who refuse to recognise the skills of those without degrees. Well, their loss.

    1. Of course you loved it.  Education is both an investment and a consumption good.  People get education for a variety of reasons, not least because learning is fun.  They also go in order to build social capital (ie, “[meet] a bunch of really bright people”).  These two factors probably far outweigh most of the actual learning that goes on at school, at least in terms of benefits-per-cost.

      More importantly, the critique of credentialism is NOT free education versus paid education, nor is it about time required for investment.  The critique is that the process of selection does not assess merit, but it creates the illusion that what was selected for is valuable and useful.  In other words, if people come out of the sorting process, they must have some desirable quality, and they deserve above average rewards.  Meritocracy is an illusion. One’s ability to memorize Chinese philosophy (for example) has absolutely nothing to do with how good a mandarin you will be.

      It’s actually rather ironic that you claim to be the product of a “top university”, yet your response was so completely unrelated to the argument of author.  Kinda proves the point, really …

      1. “”Death by Degrees,” a thoughtful piece in N+1, compares the inherent injustice in a system rigged to produce unequal wealth distributions to the injustice in a system that demands expensive, time-consuming higher education in order to access professional and political life. ”

        It may not be the point of the author, but it’s certainly an attitude that seems to be shown by Cory, and a number of commenters.

        However, you do have a point about credentials – my credentials in this argument suck. Most of the work in the team I’m in requires post-grad level maths, so getting a degree on your CV is not the apparent make-work required elsewhere. On the other hand, we did hire a guy without a degree who demonstrated a shedload of appropriate experience.

        So, from that angle, I can’t refute your point that for many (most?) jobs academic results are no predictor for success at the job. All I can say is that meritocracy seems to be working pretty well in some niches.

        The cost of education still seems a real killer to me. Indeed, it is raised in the article, even if it’s not the main thrust. Degree-level knowledge is a prerequisite for many high-end jobs, and barring a huge chunk of society from even starting on that course really sucks for social mobility.

    2.  Well, so? No one has disputed that “top end” schools are fun to attend, are full of smart people, and that their credentials open doors-the latter is the point. The question is whether said institution was so radically good at selecting talent irregardless of monetary capacity, social standing, participation in the preparatory machine, and the size of the institution itself, willingness to apply, and so  forth, and was simultaneously so outlandishly capable of enhancing the intellectual powers of its students, relative to all other learning institutions in the land, that it would make sense for governing bodies to be composed solely of its members? Those are the questions at hand.

      1. Solely? No. Largely? Yes.

        The list is of 9 largish universities. They have hundreds of thousands of graduates. For the kind of calibre person that’s needed (filling one of a few dozen places), getting a degree at a top university is not a challenge, it’s probably step one of their career plan. If you can get a degree there, why would you do anything else? From that point of view, it’s impressive that they’ve got a third of the people who didn’t get a degree from one of those places. 

        There is the issue that cost is making the process nowadays select on increasingly non-meritocratic attributes, but I’d hope that for the people coming into government right now, education was not quite the financial issue it is now. I guess you’ll be rather screwed on that count in a few decades. :/

        1.  “Why would you do anything else?”

          Well, as someone accepted to a few places on the list, and elected to go elsewhere, I have a few. Because it’s empirically demonstrable that most undergraduate educations are broadly equivalent- as well one would expect them to be when the body of knowledge in question is so much more discrete than in post-grad research, and there aren’t enough teaching jobs at the Ivys to absorb all their graduates with an interest in academia. Because the actual professorial talent, as suggested by bleeding edge publications, and laureates, and pre/post learning assessments, doesn’t correspond with the distribution of 18th land grants. Because hobnobbing with the trust fund brigade sounded nightmarish. Because my career path was sufficiently nebulous and adventuresome that toting around a pile of debt was unappetizing when I was faced with a pile of metrics suggesting I would be equally well educated. Because other college towns are more liveable with more interesting political cultures. Because….

          And to speak for some associates: because some really wildly intelligent people were wildly bored in high school and are apparently condemned to eternally suffer for it.

          Come now. We’ve had electoral battles waged between members of the same *fraternity,* and your working hypothesis for those two men being in said position is really that the college admissions system had engaged in a miraculously thorough assessment of the future leadership potential of the entire populous, and come up with those two human beings?  That sounds adequately parsimonious to you?

  12. Which is not only a vast over simplification of the rebellion, but largely inapplicable as a similar, much less equivalent, form of credentialism. Further, while credentialism and elitism may be correlated, they are not the same thing, though the author conflates them.

  13. Thanks, but I’ll stick with the degreed doctors. Despite the borderline conspiracy-theory reasoning on display, there was valid and good reason for the shift to rigorous standards.

    1. “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”  – Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

      The point is not that we would be better off without rigorous standards.  Obviously there need to be standards for the protection of the public health.  The point is that letting the doctors regulate themselves (through the AMA) naturally results in their setting procedures that also limit the supply of doctors and thus limiting their competition, raising prices on all of us.

      1. The AMA and ABA are captured regulators of their respective professions. It is known.

        1. I don’t want to sound pedantic here, but the AMA and ABA are not examples of regulatory capture.  They are private professional associations (interest groups, really).  

          Regulatory capture is like when the FDA (a government agency) stops taking an adversarial stance towards pharmaceutical companies and starts representing them within government.

  14. Personal anecdote: I remember poking through the classifieds a year or so ago, and I saw an ad I’ll never forget. A big industrial firm was looking for a “general maintenance” employee, whose job description included things like mopping the floors and oiling the machinery around the plant. Part of the application requirements insisted that a four-year degree was necessary to apply.

    A bachelor’s degree. To mop the floors at a factory.

    It’s no wonder the rest of the world thinks of Americans as idiots.

  15. Yet many are usually ok with the way we credential teachers, where teachers with higher and higher degrees can make more money, but apparently it is forbidden to reward teachers for actual merit or student outcomes

  16. The problem is that college is only the first barrier to entry.  You go to four years of school at outrageous cost, and that qualifies you to get an entry level job at a distressed rate of pay.  After X period of time at that, you’re qualified to take the qualification exam for that particular industry.  For lawyers, it’s the Bar; for interior designers, it’s the NCIDQ.  Many, if not most, industries have something like this.

    This is basically an apprenticeship model.  We can all agree that a college education provides many benefits, but in most cases those benefits are intangible to an individual’s career path.  We’re all very glad that you aced Philosophy of Science (in lieu of a more rigorous science course), but it’s totally irrelevant to your career as a CPA.  Yet you will not be able to get a job as a CPA if you have not taken that course or a similar one.

    What if we moved away from the diploma mill model, and move more solidly to an apprenticeship model?  Does the accounting world need you to study microbiology and English Folklore of the 19th Century in order to work a spreadsheet?  No, but there are a lot of things not taught in school that they badly need you to know.  If you spend your college years on a 4 year apprenticeship, at the end of which you’re a journeyman accountant, might you be a more valuable 22 year old than 4 years at UNCG (my alma mater)?  And probably a higher-earner with less debt, to boot.

    1. The acronym for a program my college had escapes me, but basically it was an apprenticeship program. Students would study in their major and on the 3rd semester would leave school to work at a computer programming company, accounting agency, etc. They’d work for 3 to 4 months and then go back to school. And no, it wasn’t an internship. Every other year they would go back to the company and work another couple of months. It added about a year and a half to their schooling and it was not available to Liberal Arts students. The two students I knew who did this graduated and got a job at a higher salary than anyone else I knew. Plus, they barely had any debts.

  17. And the middle classes come up against the contradiction between the teleological development of the senses on which the establishment of stable and sustainable sexual, economic and technological relations depends (and the resolution of certain problems of physics) – our true creative potential – and the ideological manipulation on which their power and authority depend; simplicity versus complexity.
    I mustn’t laugh.

  18. In the early eighties, during a period of increasing unemployment it was suggested by Saint Reagan that improving your level of education, Masters over Bachelors, PHD over Masters, would allow you to become wealthier and weather unemployment better.

    This started a long term battle of degree inflation where college diploma became the new high school diploma and pushed all increased education costs onto students or their parents. The problem is too many people have taken the advice and your PHD doesn’t guarantee a job any more than your bachelors did. As near as I can tell there is no real change in intellect or improved services from this degree inflation, I think professional services are actually worse.

    The answer?  The Omniscient Degree.  A solid gold diploma guaranteeing complete knowledge of all things. That ought to fix things.

    1.  I don’t think a PhD guaranteed a job in the past either; I don’t think any degree “guarantees” a job.  The closest you can get is a professional degree in a hard science e.g. doctor, nurse, engineer, etc), but even then, incompetence and other flaws will negate whatever inherent value your degree is supposed to have.

      1.  I think at a certain point it did. It had real bearing  when the ground was not littered with post-graduate degrees. According to someone in Human Resources with a major company in the early 90’s (Sorry to be so vague, can’t recall the source) as the levels of the candidates increased they would hire from the pool with higher degrees.
        5% had a bachelors in 1940, 20% in 1990 and you have large increases in the amounts of masters and doctorates as well. Inevitably when there are more people with the degree and a limited number of openings, someone’s not getting hired.
        Scroll to RJ five down and read about the bachelors degree required to mop the floor.  No one would have expected this from the 50’s through the 70’s. They would know better.

  19. The author of this article is operating from a position of unrecognized privilege.

    In a large, heterogeneous society, we need a mechanism to identify competence in strangers we want to do business with.  That’s what credentials are for.  A college degree doesn’t PROVE that someone knows what I need him to know, but, since I don’t know them personally, I willing to accept the authority of an institution.  It’s an imperfect system (college degrees don’t always correlate with competence) but it’s better than the alternative.

    The alternative to credentialism is cronyism and nepotism.  In the absence of institutional certification, employers will fall back on personal contacts — friends and family.   Wealthier people with lots of connections will have lots of opportunities, and poorer people with few connections will have none. 

    The “solution” offered by the article is a “let them eat cake” response.  “The poor can’t afford to go to college?  Well why should they?  They should just ask Uncle Moneybags for a job!”

    1. A college degree proves that the graduate is capable of applying to, attending, graduating from, and usually paying for college. These things are all relevant to many jobs but have little to do with what we usually think of as ‘merit’.

  20. I agree to some extent with the theory the article puts forward, but the first paragraph quoted above is riddled with misinformation that I feel compelled to correct (point of reference, I’m a law student and used to work in a state house and a district office):

    (1) The “impact” of legal training is an overly complicated legal system.  Well, no.  It’s partly a chicken-or-egg problem, but putting that aside, also keep in mind that many legislators are not lawyers, and those that did go to law school don’t really use any specific law school training when creating legislation.  The draftsmen of many laws may or may not be lawyers, but they are often just following the instructions of non-lawyers (legislators, regulators).  Now, if the authors are thinking about the “common law” being over-complicated, they have a bit of a point: having to read court opinions to deduce the law on a certain point is difficult and confusing.  But, that’s the case in many other countries where a law degree can be earned in four years at university (not as a graduate degree).  The law deals with complicated questions, and just as a philosopher doesn’t simply write in bullet form his theory, rationale, examples, conclusion, etc., a judge takes his time to support his ruling with plenty of reason and support.  The point being: yes, the law is complicated, but it’s not the result of legal training.

    (2) The legal system is outrageously expensive.  Yes it often is, but it doesn’t have to be.  High-flying corporate clients choose the most expensive firms for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they can afford them (the same way a rich house-wife may choose to shop at Gelsons (a very expensive grocery store in LA) instead of a cheaper option with the same products); these corporations are made of people smart enough to know if they are really getting ripped off and can do something about it if they wish.  As for the small-time criminal defendants that can’t afford to secure representation at all: they cannot be imprisoned without being represented by an attorney, which the state will provide (or if they waive their right to an attorney it must be a knowing and intelligent waiver in the eyes of the judge).  So, that point was plainly false.  That is a federal rule coming from the Supreme Court, which means that many jurisdictions go farther and provide counsel for indigent defendants even if prison time is not on the table.

    (3) Routine legal matters could easily and cheaply be handled by non-lawyers.  That is correct, to some extent, and also presently the case.  That’s what paralegals are.  Incorporating a business, drafting a will, filing suit in small claims court are some examples of legal matters that do not require a lawyer.  But, if you want to be represented by somebody else in court, that person needs to be a lawyer.  In a criminal proceeding, that makes plenty of sense to me–just as I wouldn’t put my life in the hands of a “non-initiate” medical practitioner, I also wouldn’t put my life or liberty in the hands of a non-lawyer.  To be more clear, while filing court documents may not require specialized legal training, representing somebody else in a trial for their life or their freedom is complicated and does require specialized training.  As for civil matters, again, the choice is yours if you want a lawyer or not, but if enough money is on the line I’d advise representation or risk having circles run around you by an “initiate.”  Also, for personal injury lawsuits, if the plaintiff cannot afford a lawyer, many attorneys will work on a contingency basis for a percent of the damages awarded.

    So, there you have it.  Not a terrible notion to put forward, but based in awful examples.  It’s a shame, too, because I would like to see a well thought out essay on the desirability and inherent limitations on “credentialism.”  This just wasn’t it.

  21. Credentials are too often used as a proxy for capability. Yet, at least it is becoming easier to demonstrate your capability to a potential employer.

    For example, if are you a skilled electrician, you could put up youtube videos showing how to solve troubleshoot some common electrical problems. Are you a self-taught multivariate data analyst? Grab some large data sets off the web, analyze them, and put the results on your blog. Want a job on Wall Street? Steal from people in nursing homes, sell the belongings, and send the paper trail to your potential employer.

  22. “When we ask ourselves whether populist hostility should be directed against the rich or against the professional elite, the answer must be, ‘Yes, please!'”

    That seems a dumbass thing to do.  Don’t hate on the player, hate on the game.

    1. Don’t hate on the player, hate on the game.

      Who on earth do you think is running the game and making sure that there are no other games?

      1. The rich obviously.  But seeing as we live in a somewhat-functional democracy, they are able to do this because a bunch of poor and middle class people aren’t willing to “punish the job-creators”.  I don’t think attacking the rich as a whole is a good strategy at all; attack the bankster, the government-lobby complex, the corrupt politicians, the massive monopolies and collusions, and the lassie-fair, free-for-all, post citizens united money-can-and-should-buy-everything culture.  

        Attacking rich people and elites because of those qualities alone is a bad idea; those elites hold the power and many are on our side.  They won’t be if it all breaks down to class warfare.

  23. I still don’t get it.  Why should I be upset that Obama’s cabinet is populated with smart, ambitious people, many of whom have spent years (as part of pursuing an advanced degree) studying the nuances of history, economics, science etc.?  Why should any of these people be ashamed of their degrees?  The article seems to imply that these credentials were simply bought and paid for, without any real learning or accomplishment, to gain entry to some club.
    To the extent that credentials are a proxy for wealth, obviously that’s bad, but many advanced degrees cost no tuition (e.g. in the sciences and even sometimes in the humanities at top programs).  And if we’re talking about undergrad, it should be noted that Harvard has one of the most progressive financial aid programs anywhere.  Yes, the likes of George W. can buy degrees from good places, but the idea that he needed that credential to get elected seems silly to me.  He needed to be wealthy, and everything else is secondary.Extra bonus points for quoting Che saying intellectuals should all commit suicide.  Classy.

  24. This article really misses the point. Credentialism’s threat to society come much lower down the economic chain, as more and more jobs that never needed a degree now require  a masters just to get in the door. The Bachelors degree is the new high school diploma.

  25. It boils down to class. We might pretend we’re in a society that isn’t divided into classes, but we are. Open the door to something to allow more people in and as the article mentioned, the standard to ‘qualify’ gets raised. No one is against letting new blood into a class, they just don’t want that many. When it comes to education there’s an even bigger perk. They’ve figured out a way to milk you for a sub-par education and you can never ‘not pay’ the loans you got for it.

    I see credentialism as part of winnowing out the majority in order perpetuate the cost and the myth.

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