Credentialism

Prompted by the recent firing of Marilee Jones, the MIT admissions dean, for falsifying her resume by claiming unearned academic degrees, Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias (among others) have pseudo-defended the fired dean on the grounds that we are living in an credential-obsessed society. The crux of the argument is that the fired dean is generally reported to have been very good at her job, such that perhaps it should not matter that she did not have the undergraduate and graduate degrees that she claimed. Ezra disputes that lying was the real issue:

But I don't think that's exactly why they fired her. Rather, I don't think MIT was comfortable with the idea of employing someone who is not only proof that complex jobs can be handled by someone without a university degree, but that a degree is a counterfeit prone piece of paper.

On this, I think Ezra is being overly cynical. I think there is little reason to doubt that MIT had to fire Jones because she lied about her degrees. For 28 years she claimed educational credentials to which she was not entitled. This basic act of lying as part of a job application would be grounds enough to fire her from any job. But to allow her to continue to serve as the Dean of Admissions, tasked with assessing the credentials of college applicants, would have been impossible. When this simplest of explanations is available, Ezra's allegations of territorialism ring conspiratorial.

This does not, however, discredit the attack on excessive credentialism. It just means that Ezra and Matt have hitched their wagon to the wrong horse. Put the lying aside for just a moment. To the extent that Jones did a good job as admissions dean while lacking the ordinarily required educational degrees, it is a data point for asking what those pieces of paper are really supposed to represent, and why we adhere to such a strict credential-based regime. Matt makes several good points:

There's this current well-intentioned mania for producing policies that will get more people to go to college, and to some extent to get more people to graduate from college, but it's clear that the first step in anything along these lines is that we need to know something about why a college degree is valuable. Insofar as it's a pure screening mechanism (and there's considerable evidence that this is at least what it mostly is) then expanding access to college is only going to devalue the credential. Presumably there are some actually useful skills being imparted to some college students... but it's really crucial that we figure out what these are and find ways to spread the skills themselves rather than the credential. Meanwhile, the habit of disqualifying perfectly competent people from jobs based on a lack of degrees has become yet another brick in the American wall of inegalitarianism.

The comments to Matt's post quickly point him to Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the 1971 Supreme Court decision that read Title VII to forbid the use of high school diplomas and broad aptitude tests as prerequisites for employment and promotion. There are some who argue that this decision has led employers to require college degrees as basic proxies for competence, since other possible "screening mechanisms" (such as aptitude tests) were forbidden.

Nevertheless, this is not a sufficient explanation for all of Matt's objections, nor does it cover other arenas of credentialism. While, Ezra and Matt focus on the undergraduate degree, I would point to another diploma as being far more perplexing as a required credential: the MBA. The MBA has always struck me as little more than a two year vacation from working, highlighted by heavy drinking and networking (often at the same time). Nothing about the MBA has ever given me reason to believe that the average businessman is better off stopping their on-the-job development for two years of classroom time than spending those two years in the workplace. Instead, it seems that the MBA as a required credential for upward mobility has been built right into the career path, with some employers actually paying for pre-MBA employees to go get that credential, so that they can then fill the next higher position in the business (which of course requires an MBA).

Whether the JD, which has been made a regulatory prerequisite to a law license in most states, suffers from the same defect is a question best left to those who lack the bias of law school debt.