12 May 2012
In “Credentialism, Part I: How much of your education do you really need?,” I looked at the relationship between the amount of information you really need to do a job and the other qualities that make—or break—success.
The nurse practitioner needs a high level of medical science information as well as skill and rapport with patients. The sales rep who develops great rapport with her clients can get by with a much less demanding body of technical information. There is a wide spectrum in the middle.
“Credentialism” means creating barriers to entering the work force by padding and lengthening courses, raising fees, and marketing prestige or exclusivity. The usual explanation is that more and better education results, which helps students, prospective employers, and society in general.
Maybe credentialism does all that. But here are some other things it also does:
• It keeps younger potential competitors out of the work force for several extra years.
That can be better news for government and industry than for the students who must finance those years by incurring debt.
• It makes achievement in getting credentials sound as important as achievement in the field itself.
That’s problematic. Do high marks in a certificate course in hotel and resort management show that a person can run a hotel or resort? Possibly, but so much of what we really need to know can only be learned on the job.
• It forms an industry for the people who create the courses and grant the credentials.
That’s not a bad thing in principle. In practice, its value depends on the relationship between credentials and later performance. In Part I, we saw that experts doubted the relationship between post-graduate business degrees and success in running a business. Similarly, editors have told me that they would rather hire journalists with science or economics degrees than journalism degrees.
Their logic was simple: They can teach a suitable applicant to report news, but they can hardly teach science or economics in a newsroom.
• It enables human resources departments to defend their hiring decisions on the basis of credentials rather than factors that are harder to measure.
One outcome has been a big increase in credentials fraud. As one academic put it, in a variation on a well-known joke once current in the communist countries of eastern Europe: “The employer pretends to need a degree; the employee pretends to have one.”
Of course dishonesty is wrong. But surely something is amiss when so many people are tempted to career-destroying lies—when the degree may have been inconsequential to job performance anyway.
• It favors the middle class over the working poor.
Sixty percent of Americans do not even have associate’s degrees, and face significant obstacles to getting them.
Sometimes that’s just Life 101. The fact that one cannot afford medical school does not justify practising as a quack. But where courses are padded and lengthened to fill a variety of needs (and their fees increased), they impede upward mobility.
A classic example is therapy, where non-credentialed workers often do better than credentialed ones. It comes down to this: You are either good at helping troubled people or not. Education can provide useful information, but overdoing it discourages low-income people whose life skills and life experience can be true but unrecognized assets.
Is there nothing good about credentialism? Yes, some things are good.
Credentials courses are excellent for networking with peers you may later work with or for. In a world where many people grumble, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” you will, of course, be too busy Googling your former classmates to pay much attention . . .
Second, they can help you find a mentor who enjoys using decades of “old pro” experience to help you succeed. Curiously, “Mentor” is actually the name of the man to whom Odysseus entrusts his son, Telemachus’s, education when he goes off to the Trojan War, in Homer’s Odyssey, written nearly three thousand years ago. His name became a word to describe such relationships.
The secret of success in an over-credentialed industry is to use these advantages—and to realize that out there in the field, experience, not theory, is the teacher.