Who is working to end credentialism?
November 17, 2020 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Which people or groups are working against credentialism/education inflation in the US? How can I get involved in this? I'm specifically wanting groups I could join that work towards eliminating unnecessary higher education degree requirements (and therefore making students take out huge loans for jobs that will never pay enough to cover them).
posted by Violet Hour to Education (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
what an interesting question. There was just an article in the WSJ about this yesterday. If you find yourself paywalled and want to see it, memail me and I'll send you a pdf.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:13 PM on November 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

God, how I want to know more about this. I have worked at a community college in a blue-collar city adjacent to a university town for a long time, and getting past "credential inflation" is so, so hard...

I think a call to a local community college's "business and community ed" wing might be a good start toward finding which companies have decided something other than academic credentials matter.
posted by Caxton1476 at 1:35 PM on November 17, 2020

A very worthwhile question. From a special needs education angle, in my case Deaf education, I see my signing students unable to achieve those qualifications due to the language requirements, so being limited in the job market.

At school level, subjects like Tourism, then lead to degrees and other higher qualifications in that field. Unless you want to become a researcher, is that level of study really necessary in types of employment which depend heavily on experience based learning?

As an art/design/music person I've also always wondered about the increasing elevation of academic qualifications over self learned and alternative training towards artisan/craft skills. Should a ceramicist with a PhD always be regarded as better ceramicist? This would be laughable in the music industry.

We've also seen the rise of this in the IT industry, which in many cases (not all) was built on self learnt and developed skills.

To try and answer your question, I'm wondering if organisations promoting and training in skills training, entrepreneurship, learnerships, might be able to provide answers.

It's going to be a long hard fight to challenge this status quo.
posted by BrStekker at 3:06 PM on November 17, 2020

Probably not quite what you were thinking of, but the Thiel Fellowship is somewhat along these lines . It basically pays college kids to drop out and do productive things instead of finishing their degree.
posted by kickingtheground at 3:19 PM on November 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

So, one of the reasons for the credentialing inflation thing is because of the Supreme Court. Griggs v. Duke Power.
The Court’s decision had an immediate consequence: Businesses were put on notice that job testing was now fraught with legal danger. Tests were safe to use only if they could meet the stringent burden of proving that they were necessary and perfectly screened for skills essential to a particular job.

But there was also a delayed consequence: Businesses began looking for a legally safe proxy for general aptitude testing and hit upon the college degree. With actual intelligence testing now an invitation to costly litigation they’d probably lose, “many employers made the college degree a de facto intelligence test and focused only on hiring applicants who possessed it.”
posted by MythMaker at 3:39 PM on November 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

After reading that Forbes article I find myself confused by the same point that the author seems to be. Why is a college degree an example of something "necessary and perfectly screened for skills essential to a particular job"? After all, Duke Power originally had a high school diploma requirement and that was part of the problem. Yet, somehow, a college degree side-steps that?

Higher education requirements aren't always of the "college degree" form. I see that barbers in California need 1500 hours (!) of study to be certified. It takes less than that to be a policeman. Honestly, requiring a college degree would seem to be better. At least that is transferrable to other jobs.

You'll probably find a lot of friends in this area among libertarians (much as I hate to say it, but they are right some of the time).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 5:20 PM on November 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

I applaud your enthusiasm but I would caution that I think many instances of credentialism and degree inflation are a symptom of a larger problem, which is the lack of worker bargaining power broadly across the economy.

From a thousand-foot level, you can think about credentialing several ways:

1. Credentialing insulates labor markets, and like most barriers it creates market power for some people and takes it away from other people. There are a lot of ways that these barriers can exacerbate disadvantage, but if they are done right they can also be a tool for creating better jobs. Labor unions aren't exactly the same as credentials but they can have similar effects because they can limit the supply of workers available to employers.

2. Credentialing is also about improving information flow in markets, in that it can provide information to employers or customers about the skills of a person that might otherwise be hard to find out.

The American Medical Association is a great example of both of these. I like knowing that my doctor has a base level of knowledge. But for example they also restrict the amount of doctors in ways that benefits their market power. Dean Baker has written a lot about this from a more left perspective. Of course, most people are not doctors or trying to be doctors, and most occupational interest groups do not have the political clout of the AMA. Requiring degrees for jobs that don't really require a degree is done because employers generally see a degree as a positive signal and believe that there are enough people out there with degrees who want to do the job, not because an employer wants a potential employ to waste a ton of money on school. (although I suppose they probably don't mind them being in debt...)

All that said, and more to the point of your question, Opportunity@Work is trying to help improve skill matching across industries, which is a neat idea as far as it goes.
posted by ropeladder at 6:52 PM on November 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

“The Meritocracy Trap,” explained: A new book outlines how meritocracy imprisons us all" is the title of the Ezra Klein Show's interview with Daniel Markowits. Markovits just published The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite. I'm not sure it answers all of your questions, or maybe any of them, specifically. But it certainly gets to a certain kind of credentialed inflation, describing "meritocracy" as a largely phony conceit, shielding the ways that power and money beget power and money, not least through nepotism, which has had disastrous effects on high school grads when that became not good enough, and ultimately college grads when that became not good enough either, especially when you didn't go to the "right" college.

To Mythmaker's point about a delay, perhaps that was part of it: For about 10 years after I graduated from college nobody cared what school I attended: I put it at the end of the resume, and I forgot about it. No one asked about it, and I was gaining experience worth discussing.

Fast forward to shortly before the 2008 Recession, and my no doubt belated realization that all that had changed. At first, I thought it was just a DC thing — college choice was often the first topic in an interview, or ordinary meeting! It was expected to go at the top of the resume! And I heard direct tales of think tanks that only hired grads from some schools, but not others. In one particular case, a scientist and his former protegee wanted to work together, but HR wouldn't allow it because the protegee wasn't properly ivy league.

Fast forward again, and nowadays I see the odd ad requesting ivy degrees! I note that ads are routinely written in years of experience since graduation, confining employment largely to the very young. I wonder at LinkedIn's reliance on photography, which seems yet another fine way to weed out. I remember being really angry that so many in Obama's cabinet were ivy league: Harvard, Harvard and more Harvard. All of this brings up issues of how much success can you earn — and how much success is fundamentally inherited. Markowits' book gets to this issue, and in the portion of the interview that stood out most, had interesting things to say about how this has led to Democrats' current inability to attract blue collar voters.
posted by Violet Blue at 11:10 PM on November 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is Shoshana Weissman's big campaigning issue. You can listen to an interview with her about it here: https://shows.acast.com/ipse-dixit/episodes/shoshana-weissmann-on-occupational-licensing
posted by wattle at 3:53 AM on November 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Look into the competency-based education movement. It may not align exactly with what you're talking about, but it's in the ballpark at least.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:27 AM on November 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is a big issue in the nonprofit and racial and ethnic equity worlds. Requiring unnecessary degrees perpetuates structural racism. See for example.
posted by postel's law at 5:27 AM on November 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

The information and links in this thread would make a great post for the blue.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:54 PM on November 18, 2020

You might also like the research of Lauren Rivera, trained in sociology and working in HR research at Northwestern last I checked. For her doctoral research she sat in on hiring panels at elite firms, where due to an abundance of candidates a panel could roundfile all applicants without fancy degrees and still have a wealth of great options. (Though likely a less diverse pool.)

That is to say, the underlying issue seems to be competition and a wealth of applicants. So mainly economic issues, although I think we can also blame online applications and hiring systems that reduce the friction of applying for jobs. For example, allowing people to apply for jobs across the country and prioritize particular keywords.

Importantly, when you get 350 applicants for a job and at least 100 are qualified, like an academic job search email I remember from 2011, pretty much any hiring panel will then need shortcuts (eg degree prestige) to make their task reasonable. It is unreasonable to ask a panel to carefully consider 200 applicants. 10 or 20 maybe, but then the task starts to interfere with normal work.

What’s the solution? I don’t think fighting the credentialism trend is really the solution, although that is a good goal. But I would argue it is mainly a symptom, not a cause.

The solution is improving the JOBS situation. If everyone needs more workers, credentialism will die down. (Also, you might get wages rising.)

Unfortunately, trends like financialization and automation have enabled financial growth (thru 2019) without as much jobs growth. It is no surprise to see credentialism rising on the back of the pandemic, because of course the economy is contracting and jobs are drying up, meaning more—and more qualified—applicants for every position. (My economic development professor had a joke about getting your right order and change at a McDonalds - it was an indicator of economic troubles in a region because it suggested that overly competent people were working at McDonalds, rather than something more suitable to their higher skills.)

Basically, I hope the incoming administration realizes this and works toward policies that can bring in more jobs, like a green new deal or something that focuses on higher employment, not just policies that help businesses in ways that go back to eg shareholders.

TLDR: credentialism is not great but it is logical to see it growing when there are a lot more applicants than jobs available. It takes systemic change although as an individual you can sometimes escape by eg starting your own company.
posted by ec2y at 3:29 PM on November 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

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