Creeping Credentialism and Credential Inflation

We'll hear more and more these next few years about "creeping credentialism," that is, how universities and colleges have attained unprecedented monopolistic power in controlling credentials and job entry. Without doubt, this "credential cartel" controls the passport to opportunity for a large percentage of our workforce.

This is a relatively new reality. However, several sociologists have already written extensively about this emergence of the university controlling the rites of entrance into the job market. Dr. Ivar Berg and Dr. Randall Collins, both of the University of Pennsylvania, have written extensively on how spiraling education requirements have "transformed college campuses into tollbooths on the road to middle-class respectability."

Other scholars, including Berg and Collins, contend that institutions of higher learning have gained access to vast public subsidies by promising to increase workforce productivity and improve social mobility. Their conclusion? Colleges and universities, for the most part, have failed at both tasks.

In an article by Noel Weyrich entitled "Failing Grades" appearing in the Pennsylvania Gazette, Weyrich magnificently synthesizes the work of Berg, Collins and others including Dr. David Larabee, an education professor at Stanford University. The following is an excerpt from Weyrich's article:

In an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, Collins argued that most problems on university campuses today stem from the proliferation of degree programs that attract waves of credential-seeking students. Entitled "The Dirty Secret Of Credential Inflation," the article describes a higher education system locked in a cycle of expanding access to degrees, which dilutes the value of those degrees in the employment market, which, in turn, drives a portion of those degree holders back to campus for still more advanced degrees. "In principle," he wrote, "credential inflation could go on endlessly, until janitors need Ph.D.’s and babysitters are required to hold advanced degrees in child care. People could stay in college up through their 30s and 40s."

Weyrich describes why Collins and Berg believe "that credential inflation keeps universities flush with tuition dollars, which helps to finance the livelihoods of senior faculty," but many academic fields offer little or no value in terms of job performance. We all know graduate schools have become a growth industry. The emphasis on a diploma as a condition of employment represents a tremendous social victory for institutions of higher learning and puts them into a position of social control such as this country has never granted before.

Sooner or later—and probably sooner—Corporate America will begin to ask the right questions relating to the funding of credential inflation. Job performance depends upon the right training. Continuing professional education, which provides "just-in-time" training, may be more useful in terms of increasing the productivity of knowledge and service workers than acquiring an advanced degree.

First published on Human Resources IQ.