Credentialism run amok

The share of job vacancies requiring a bachelor’s degree increased by more than 60 percent between 2007 and 2019, with faster growth in professional occupations and high-wage cities.

That is from a new NBER paper by Peter Q. Blair and David J. Deming, noting that the authors instead emphasize upskilling in the jobs themselves.


yet if you take away the business cycle, the Ph.d market is at a zero unemployment. The increase is a really big deal. It indicates the gap rate between professor's and the professional class has increased, and moreover, for us here in Memphis, it's indicative of a flash of panic.

Upskilling? What does that mean? Having a college degree does not separate one from the pack. Indeed, having an advanced degree doesn't either. I have a home near a large federal facility. Many of the employees, who are fine folks I admire, have advanced degrees. They never left home to get the degrees. And the degrees, once awarded, entitled them to significant pay raises. Is that upskilling?

Upskilling he's referring to is that the occupations supposedly now require more skills. The skills are imparted during the process of getting a college degree supposedly. The contrast is in his title, he's implying that it's not skills being sought but meaningless credentials.

If the credential is useless then why does the free market keep asking for it? Something doesn't add up.

Now it's the lack of a credential that's meaningful

"If the credential is useless then why does the free market keep asking for it?"

It offers hiring managers and HR the false security of hiring a skilled candidate. Hiring is both risky and difficult. Requiring a degree lets businesses pretend that another institution has vetted someone and therefore there's less risk in hiring that person. It's all nonsense, of course, outside certain professions. But never underestimate the power of willful ignorance.

Not total nonsense. If someone can get through a four year degree program that implies something about their academic abilities and maybe more importantly their soft skills. At the very least they're probably not a total mess.

Ages ago when I was a teenage, I had two jobs that bring back fond memories. The first was at a soda bottling plant. I was hired to work in the yard, but when they realized I had a high school degree, I was sent upstairs to the office to do light accounting. The other job was for a civil engineering firm. I was hired to work with a survey crew, but when they realized I took geometry in high school (and had a high school degree!), I was sent to the office to be what was called a "computer draftsman"; it's a misnomer since there were no computers, just a manual (with the hand crank on the side) adding machine. What I "computed", using the adding machine, were distances and angles, using what I had learned in geometry (sines, cosines, tangents, cotangents, etc.). I suspect that today those two jobs would be limited to someone with a college accounting degree and a college engineering degree. I did okay working for the civil engineer "computing" angles and distances, but I could not draw a straight line much less a curve, so I was more "computer" than

That's horrifying because if you were to try and get those same jobs now, you would need a four year degree, direct internship experience, and they MIGHT start you at $15/hr. This is on top of any other job-specific requirements they might have.

Ironically, it is as the jobs were automated that they increased the credentials needed. Back when estimating a job in a shipyard or metal shop was on pen and paper, they used skilled high school graduates. Fast forward to the late 1990s, and those jobs are done on computer but by a college graduate.

I had a cousin who was an estimator for a metal work shop. High school graduate, but ironworker, etc. from the late 1960s. In the 1990s when he had a disabling car accident, the Social Security disability judge remarked in his decision that my cousin not only was physically limited from doing his current job, but that he'd not be qualified under current hiring requirements for the job as a college degree was now required.

Wow. Just wow.

There is no such thing as a "high school degree." One is graduated from high school with a diploma. Only tertiary schools (colleges and universities, with the occasional museum or institute) grant degrees.

I often tell folks of my experience working for the soda bottler. My "accounting" job was to reconcile the "missing" cases of soda on the truck with the cash and charge receipts the route salesman (that's what they were called then) brought to me. Of course, this was late in the day, usually after dark (real late in the day in the summer), and the route salesmen were tired - it's hard work. That a skinny teen would manually do the calculation and then inform the route salesman he was $20 short must have infuriated him. Looking back, I was lucky none of them broke my nose. I was lucky alright, for having worked there and seen first hand how most Americans make a living. I suspect that today few destined for a high paying job ever see how the majority lives. One of the route salesman, whose name is Billy (I won't say his last name but I remember him well even though I have not seen him in 50 years), I remember like we have been best friends for all these years, primarily because he was the youngest route salesman, still in his twenties (old to me), with a wife and several children. Why do I remember him? Because he was as proud of being a route salesman for this company as the most overpaid banker today. If my reconciliation reflected that he was a penny short, he would make me re-calculate because he knew he wasn't. An aside, the route salesmen were sometimes short, not because they couldn't count, but because they could: they knew the family needed groceries or to pay rent or to pay the utilities, and they were cash short, short because they weren't compensated commensurate with the hard work.

Only once in my hiring years did I check somebody's claimed educational credentials. It turned out he'd lied (though pointlessly).

Last I heard of him he was a Member of the European Parliament.

One of the current candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party in Britain turns out to have been lying about an educational credential. Others have been lying about their family backgrounds - which they obviously think of as social credentials.

In major US elections, candidates will almost always do "opposition research": investigate the background of their opponents. It's trivial to find out if John Doe actually has a degree from Harvard: contact Harvard's Office of the Registrar (and nowadays there's a third-party non-profit organization, the National Student Clearinghouse, that will provide that service if the college gives them permission).

People do still lie about their backgrounds, but it usually starts at low level positions or political offices, where the opponents don't have the time or inclination to do opposition research. Once candidates get to a high level, it's hard to lie about those things because the truth is so easy to find.

Do British universities refuse to confirm or deny if someone graduated from their campus?

well obviously we need more state & local colleges to meet this huge economic demand ... selfish taxpayers have long starved the academic sector.

there's no possibility whatsoever that the casual proliferation of easy sheepskins by government politicians has generated an artificial problem of little real consequence.

What's obvious is that employers need some means of evaluating potential hires other than credentials like the bachelors degree. Employers don't want or need most of what students acquire at a university, but are forced to use the degree credential for lack of any other objective signal of candidate quality. As more people get degrees, more jobs require degree credentials, which means more people will need degrees. This credential inflation is driving the student debt crises. It might be worthwhile if universities were teaching skills that employers need, but there is no evidence of this in studies that contrast the skills of those entering and exiting university.

Once again, employers should be trolling for future employees in secondary schools, training them at their own expense, and then putting them to work. There's no valid reason why an ordinary person should have to undergo the financial obligation of higher education simply to gain employment. Trades unions have apprenticeship programs financed by the contractors that accept qualified candidates, educate them, and employ them during an extended period before admitting them to journeyman status. They are given further training at little or no cost during their careers as new technology is adopted. There's no reason this methodology couldn't be used by other businesses except for the fact that they enjoy getting assets for which they needn't pay the entire expense.

The Trades Union approach has some merit as it doesn't tie the work obligation to one employer. Currently, after a 5 yr training program while working as apprentice, the graduate is required to work for at least 5 years for a unionized employer.

It is a basic principle of Anglo-American law that a person cannot be forced to work for someone, even if the someone has trained them and signed them to a contract. (You can get damages if you go through the time and expense and bother of suing.)

This is a major reason there is very little "instead of college" training.

Professional sports teams "draft" eligible players who may only play for the team that drafted them. Florida State All-American outfielder J.D. Drew was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997 but refused to sign with the team. Thus he could not play for any team in major league baseball. He spent the season with the St.Paul Saints of the independent Northern League before becoming eligible for the next season's draft and signing with the St. Louis Cardinals. The rules of baseball prevented him from working for anyone in the major leagues.

Drew was not forced to play for the Phillies or one of their minor league affiliates. Baseball teams (exempt from the antitrust laws) agreed not to play him for a year. I gather the situation is similar in other professional sports.

"What's obvious is that employers need some means of evaluating potential hires other than credentials like the bachelors degree. Employers don't want or need most of what students acquire at a university, but are forced to use the degree credential for lack of any other objective signal of candidate quality. As more people get degrees, more jobs require degree credentials, which means more people will need degrees. This credential inflation is driving the student debt crises. It might be worthwhile if universities were teaching skills that employers need, but there is no evidence of this in studies that contrast the skills of those entering and exiting university."

1. Why? Why do they need a signal of 'quality'? Is the danger of hiring a worker that doesn't work out so bad? Is filtering by degree really reduce the risk of that dramatically?

2. For your assertions to make sense, the answers would appear to be yes for many of the questions in #1. If that's the case, then more people getting college degrees either reduces the danger of them being bad employees or dilutes the signal.

If it dilutes the signal, then employers will simply stop using the college degree as a filter. Why would they continue if it stopped providing them a reliable way to filter out who will turn out bad? If getting a degree actually does reduce the risk of someone turning out bad, then that means the degree works and more of it would be good for the economy.

Firms are already looking beyond college credentials. For example, it is getting harder to get a job without previous experience, and most employers now pay attention to things like how many similar professionals you have in your Linked-In network. Google and several other high-profile tech companies have dropped degree requirements entirely, as they've found that they are a poor indicator of candidate success on the job,

Ben Ham had a turned over a San Diego twice, a four and an eight, having swallowed a five of clubs on the flop, she hit a rainbow straight on a seven of spades and a seven of diamonds. The serving staff wore black collared shirts and red bowties and carried their black trays over their heads. Something was missing, a cowboy hat, a pair of byzantine earrings, a piece of luggage—one of those messenger bags that an architect carries like an accordion to a dinner party.

Word salad is sometimes a precursor to a stroke. You might want to watch your diet and stop smoking.

And it's getting better over time. The word salads used to be far less coherent.

Oh, in that

To see the thing evolve over time. Still a ways to go but you can see how eventually AI will be able to fool us.

"Firms are already looking beyond college credentials. For example, it is getting harder to get a job without previous experience, "

These observations are suspect because you, like all of us, are getting older. As you spend more and more time in the workplace the degree you have naturally becomes less important (you got it decades ago after all!) and what you've been accomplishing recently becomes more important. That doesn't tell us, though, if you were 24 again would you be better off with a degree or not.

The non-professional bachelors degree was never designed to be job training, or even a way to teach people useful skills. The fact that this credential has become so important in the job market signals a deep flaw in how our education system works, and how employers conduct hiring.

Our education system should be much more focused on teaching useful and marketable skills. Instead, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that our high schools and especially our universities are training young people to be teachers and professors. They are awarded credentials for studying and writing about material that will be of little use to them except for those who will end up teaching the class rather than taking it. The closer they get to a Harvard professorship, the more credentials we give them.

Students face an enormous opportunity cost in spending many years in college learning and doing things that do not prepare them for work, but they must stay in to get the credential (esp. the bachelors degree) or be locked out of the job market. Employers use the credential as a signal that the graduate is reasonably bright, conscientious and obedient. It's a deeply inefficient system, but employers have no other means to gather information about potential employees.

Rather than focus on student debt (a symptom of the larger problem), political leaders should be reforming education to move away from the university-for-all model. Sadly, the educators are bound to fight reform vehemently. Because most have never worked outside of the education system, most teachers and professors have few useful skills that they can impart beyond how to become teachers or professors.

The solution isn't free university; that just throws fuel on the fire. The solution will have to take the form of alternatives to university. The chicken/egg problem is how to imbue new, more efficient forms of education with credibility in the eyes of employers. A government intent on reform should establish testing/certification schemes for students and education programs that are designed by employers rather than educators. Employers cannot do this by themselves; they need a central authority to coordinate and protect them from accusations of bias and anti-competitive cooperation.

Right, at some point in the past people were not in school long enough, but now we are probably well beyond optimal. That past makes it hard to fix because looking back it is easy to get the idea that more is always better but it is not.

" A government intent on reform should establish testing/certification schemes for students and education programs that are designed by employers rather than educators. "

Doctors and lawyers already have this and their services don't come cheap. When you ask the government to do something, you invite lobbying firms to write your laws. The AMA and the ABA did just that.

The solution isn't certification either. I'm a hiring manager in tech and the field moves so fast that the months it took to pass your cert only tells employers like me that you have now have obsolete skills. A portfolio on Github that you actually wrote is more impressive to me than a Java or MIcrosoft paper cert.

The only real solution to upskilling is hands-on work. Everything else is just useless mimicry. The learning process could take many forms but the ideas bandied about these days range from apprenticeship to bootcamps. Don't get me wrong I'm a fan of higher education and some fields do require much deeper thought but it is different from training for a vocation.

How can one be hired as a barista at Starbucks without knowing about the latest intersectionally oppressed group?

Careful. I identify as a barista.

Scroll down to Germany to read about that country's apprenticeship system

Apparently, eleven US states are taking steps in that general direction.

Years ago, Russell Rumberger's PhD dissertation tried to test the assertion that jobs required more people with degrees because they required more in the way of academic-like skills. As I recall, he looked at how the US Department of Labor described large categories of jobs and how the number of jobs in each category was changing. His conclusion: not true. A book came out of it: Overeducation in the U.S. Labor Market (originally 1978).

Credentials justify pay gradations that would otherwise be politically difficult to justify. College is a more fun way to do it than, say, being a missionary. Start seeing the second-best solutions!

If you think a bachelor's degree is worthless, talk to somebody who doesn't have one.

Of course, it isn't worthless. The question is whether it's more like inventing something useful or marrying into a rich family.

Apologies, can't help myself: If you think a bachelor's degree is worth anything, talk to someone who has majored in ...Studies! :-)

I don’t know, Underwater Basketweaving Studies is often an overlooked pursuit

Department of Eagles-No one does it like
The hold steady - Chill out tent
Weezer - ...

How is social mobility related to educational opportunities?

New report from World Economic Forum:

"Northern European countries dominated top spots in the social mobility rankings, with Denmark coming first, followed by Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland. South Korea came in at 25th place, while the United States took 27th and China 45th."


Their view of mobility isn't totally transparent and the different components of the index are not always comparable. In contrast, Greg Clark's long term studies (cf. The Son Also Rises) indicate that social mobility over 1-2 centuries has been the same in the US, UK, Sweden, and China, with only India having much lower social mobility.

Would there be less credentialism if we didn’t have Griggs v. Duke Power and made it easier to hire on the basis of test scores?

We have a winner!

Progressives for whom "test" = "hate" and progressives who advocate for alternatives to the college degree grift will be at each other's throats in the next decade. Lock up the icepicks.

progressives who advocate for alternatives to the college degree grift

A very small set

Employers are free to give all manner of tests to applicants as long as the test does not have a record of bias. Skills based tests are fairly common in skill-based positions, including IT. When I had less experience on my resume I usually was tested for any job for which I was seriously considered. The problem is such tests tell nothing about soft skills also needed in the workplace- no test does, including the so-called "personality tests" that were once in vogue but are seldom used now since they've proven to be fairly worthless . The ability to complete a degree program is being used as a proxy for such skills, not so much as evidence of raw intelligence.

It’s interesting to note that the military manages to screen candidates for recruiting and MOS assignment with a simple test. I believe they have an exemption from the Griggs constraint.

It’s too bad every company can’t use the same tool - set a minimum score to screen applicants for whatever the job is.

We need more new business creation to absorb new members of our educated workforce as it is quite clear that today's incumbents are at their capacity or just being complacent.

1/ Invest more in telecommunications equipment manufacturing. This is a massive multi-billion dollar industry that is now on the radar of many governments also as a geopolitical concern. A national challenger to Huawei ($120 billion market cap) will neatly kill two birds with one stone by creating real middle class jobs and serving national security.

2/ The rest of the electronics manufacturing chain needs to be re-shored. I don't think offshoring was a mistake as it allowed cheaply testing ideas and faster innovation but given the heightened concerns of supply chain attacks by nation-states there is a good strategic case to bring it all back. Our current strategy of begging overseas companies in important industries, like TSMC, to come stateside looks pretty weak (not to mention the disaster at Foxconn/Wisconsin):

3/ Build more infrastructure. Every major metropolitan area needs better public transportation. Across the board. Europe and Asia are beating us here. Outside the big metros, build more rail, more power generation facilities, more factories. Redirect money from military spending and Trump's wall to infrastructure. No point having the latest drones flying around in the land of sand if your middle class back home is getting restless. Build, build, build.

It looks as though the job market, as determined by private corporations, has decided that a degree is what they want for people whom they hire. I thought markets were the best way to price things?


I probably would not have stated it as strongly as you, but the gist of your argument is correct. Why are we blaming credentialism. Even with all the degree holders out there, there are more non-degree holders. Can't employers hire the latter if they are just as good or better and cost less.

Just in case you are not trolling - the argument goes like this; capable people realize that they have to get degrees to get hired, otherwise the employers will think they are not capable. Employers see that the vast majority of capable people get degrees, so don't take chances on hiring people without degrees. And the cycle repeats. And people spend 4 or 5 years getting degrees to get jobs that they and the employer, in a sane world, don't need.

Yeah, it's one of the ironies -- or even hypocrisies: the economists who claim that education is wasteful signaling are usually also ones who like to proclaim the superiority of free markets. If free markets are so great, why have they led us into a sub-optimal signaling equilibrium?

I don't think the signalling hypothesis is necessarily free market, I don't see why it couldn't also be a left wing position as well, with people being swindled into going into debt. And even the most ardent free marketer recognizes that there are coordination issues which only a central authority can resolve. For instance Milton Friedman argued for higher inflation on this basis as an unemployment fighting technique in recessions, as individual actors would have no incentive to lower their wages unless everyone does so. Even ignoring this, the excessive state subsidization of student loans would suggest this is not exactly a free market, if low cost low risk loans were not available, a lot less people would go to college.

Inflation is a poor analogy here. In inflation the increase in money supply simply means one has to offer more money in a bidding process to get something. Just because people go into debt doesn't mean they automatically can command a higher price. How many people had purchased homes pre-2008, for example?

The rise in the need for degrees to do certain jobs is in part (I would say largely) driven by increased regulatory control over various aspects of hiring processes. There are jobs that can be done by someone who entered the career from high school, learned the ropes, and worked their way up--but because of some nonsense in some law or other (or worse, because of the way a regulator interprets the law) they are forbidden form doing the job. I've seen that happen, and had it happen to me. I was helping a biologist on some research once, doing basic stuff (compiling information from client-approved sources; I wasn't involved in the selection process), and the biologist had to pull me off the project because my degree is in paleontology, not biology.

This is exacerbated by regulatory capture in the form of professional licensing.

Secondly, the idea that a free market will provide perfect solutions is simply nonsense. A free market is obviously going to provide sub-optimal solutions in many cases; if it didn't, there'd be no such thing as innovation or economic growth. There'd also be no such thing as trade. Remember, value is subjective (or at least situational); what you consider optimal I may consider horrifically inefficient. Case in point: Hobby farms. Economically impractical, since they often use very inefficient methods. But since the goal of the farmer is to enjoy themselves and make enough money to sustain the hobby, that's irrelevant.

Regulatory control is usually pretty limited. When a job is only allowed to be done by someone with a degree, it is usually a very specific job and a specific degree. For example, you can't simply practice law with a degree but a law degree coupled with passing the Bar.

If, say, a biotech firm used to let people work their way up in the lab with just a high school degree but now has a blanket policy of only hiring assistants with college degrees, that's not 'regulatory' and why wouldn't the free market be a factor in it?

Uber, for example, may demand college degrees for most of its employees but it doesn't for its drivers. Why not? Why isn't it stuck at some 'sub-optimal' state where it shoots itself in the foot by demanding only drivers with degrees?

Isn't credentialing here just a mood affiliated way of saying: search and transaction costs are material; signalling is effective; heuristics are easy; and agents are rational and self interested?

We go on about selection biases and how they matter in many other respects, but ask yourself this: what's the likelihood of finding an excellent employee today vs 12 years ago who doesn't have a college degree? If that's highly unlikely and less likely than before, then why bother?

The enormous waste of squandering the most productive years of our lives

Concerning the problem of running amok:

"On the Epidemicity of Amok Violence", in Archives of General Psychiatry, 28: 873-876, by Joseph Westermeyer, cited in Violence, by Randall Collins, esp. p. 466 (Princeton UP, 2008).

If the share of job vacancies requiring a bachelor’s degree increased, it could be because of: (i) more jobs demand a bachelors degree, (ii) less jobs demand lower schooling. I'd be curious at the decrease of lower schooling jobs since they may have gone simply to the underground economy. If you're hiring illegal workers, why pay for an ad?

There aren't that many jobs for illegals but I think you have a point. Maybe jobs that do not demand schooling are simply not advertising. For example, you're never going to see an ad in the classified for Uber drivers whereas 30 years ago a taxi company might have advertised.

To push back, it's likely that the skill level required by the median job did increase since 2007, though not by 60%, maybe 10-20 ppt (1/6-1/3 of the total)?

A friend of mine was disappointed; a cousin once-removed, the offspring of her cousin who had married a man from one of the places routinely described as a hellhole, had received a graduate degree in engineering, but when she looked her up to see what she was doing in her career, she found she was heading up the diversity department at a university. That's a shame she's not using her degree to be an engineer, I said cautiously; she's not using it to be anything, was the retort. Many of you will disagree, no doubt, but surely engineering credentials are overkill for an admin job.

How did I miss this startling MR post?

Credentialism, you say?

Run amok? in THIS country? My gast is flabbered.

I am too overwhelmed by the recognition being given to this notion (the alert to which could be faulted arguably for lacking requisite specificity) by MR comment contributors that I can do little but repeat a sentiment I've shared in MR forums more than just twice:

fresh death to corrupt and corrupting MFA and other academic and publishing industry demands for credentialism for American writers of fiction, verse, essays, drama, and literary criticism--fresh death, that is, for and to the corrupt and corrupting academic captivity of American letters.

"fresh death to corrupt and corrupting MFA and other academic and publishing industry demands for credentialism for American writers of fiction, verse, essays, drama, and literary criticism-"

Why shouldn't they? Are poetry magazines suffering from a lack of poems being submitted? Book publishers having trouble finding manuscripts? No they aren't, since there are so many aspiring artists out there why not use credentialism to filter a bit?

This is not an economic problem but economics. It would be interesting, if, say, people were waiting hours for an Uber but Uber was refusing to hire drivers who didn't have degrees in 'transportation' despite the inability of supply to meet demand. That would be 'credentialism run amok' but that isn't happening.

Nyet: this is not economics I'm addressing, I'm addressing the paltry state of American letters (and, to whatever degree American letters are permitted to contribute to it, American public discourse) that has resulted plainly from the academic captivity of American letters.

If baccalaureate degrees in English fail to equip aspiring writers with the polish they want or need to commence their writing lives, America's baccalaureate programs are all failing much more conspicuously than our post-secondary institutions are advertising (surprise, surprise).

No: academic literary commissariats are instead keen to "credentialize" writing, in cahoots with the publishing industry itself, to offer fake "professionalism" so that more commercial crap can be sold through Amazon. Alas!--NO MFA program can equip writers with experience worth writing about, but MFA programs DO equip writers to participate in fawning cults of literary celebrity, to establish and maintain their professional networking connections, and to gush over the slithy crap that deserves to remain unmemorable and unread.

Writers of merit need no credentials, period: they need only exhibit some ability to write and to bring their experience of life to their experience of writing in the attempt (however vain) to contribute an illuminating perspective that can add to the perspective of the reader.

Fresh death to the academic captivity of American letters.

Someone's experience with the academic captivity of American letters:

I'm sorry what exactly is meant by 'letters' here? Are you talking about being published? Easier to get that now than in the past. Are you talking about some upscale 'literary' journals and publishers? OK but again if you got something worth reading it can get out there thru other means.

By "letters" I intend "Belles-Lettres".

Per Thrall, Hibbard, & Holman's Handbook to Literature (Revised, 1960), "literature . . . which lives because of inherent imaginative and artistic rather than scientific or intellectual qualities". (Elsewhere, they do recognize "Satire" as an authentic literary form in its own right, one I prize and practice usually as "science satire".)

As the editors conceded, even by 1960 the term was already being used to characterize "light or artificial writing": I prefer abiding by the useful definition they supplied than by any interim meaning the term may have acquired (or had applied to it by The Academy).

(No idea how the French employ the term today, but I'm drawn provisionally to Duchamp's "anti-art" for now to address the academic captivity of American letters that I oppose.)

Thanks for the exchange.

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