by James A. Bacon
Jane Jacobs is best known for her masterpiece, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” but she wrote cogently on a wide variety of economic topics before she died in 2006. In her last work, “Dark Age Ahead,” she deplored the rise of “credentialism” in higher education. Her warning, written in 2004, becomes more relevant with each passing year.
I don’t know if Rector Helen Dragas was thinking about credentialism when she uttered the now-famous comment that the University of Virginia faced an “existential crisis,” but the topic of credentialism should be top-of-mind among all university governors and administrators.
An education and a degree are not the same thing, wrote Jacobs.
Credentialing, not educating, has become the primary business of North American universities. This is not in the interest or employers in the long run. But in the short run, it is beneficial for corporations’ departments of human resources. … People with the task of selecting successful job applicants want them to have desirable qualities such as persistence, ambition and the ability to cooperate and conform, to be a “team player.” At a minimum, achieving a four-year university or college degree, no matter in what subject, seems to promise these traits. From the viewpoint of a government agency’s or a corporation’s department of human resources, the institution of higher learning has done the tedious first winnowing or screening of applicants. …
University credentialing thus efficiently combines the services to employers that in simpler and more frugal days were provided by First Class or Eagle rank in the Boy Scouts.
Since the 1960s, says Jacobs, credentialing has become the primary business of higher learning. It has made higher education a growth industry, as an increasing percentage of Americans believe they must obtain an academic credential in order to be considered for a good job. Higher ed has stoked the idea that college grads earn more money than high school grads. The result: the higher education industry now enrolls far more students than can profit from a degree, and a new class of debtors is emerging in American society.
But the system is unraveling. Consumers are rebelling at unprecedented cost of tuition and fees. Desperate, they are looking for alternatives. Online education is racing to fill the void. At the moment, the credentials of an online education do not carry the weight of a bricks-and-mortar education. But the credentialism model is under assault.
Recently, in “What an Existential Threat Looks Like,” I wrote about Udacity, a start-up that provides access to free online courses. How can the company provide free education? The business model is predicated on providing credentials… “Optionally certify your skills online or in one of our 4,500 testing centers, for a fee,” declares the website. “Optionally let us hand your resume to one of our 20 partner companies.”
The revolt against credentialism appears to be most advanced in the computer/IT sector, where corporations could care less what you know about Jane Austen or the Yanamamo Indians. Employers want to know what you know about programming, and they don’t give a hoot if your credential comes packaged as a four-year degree called a B.A. or a B.S.
If credentialism collapses, so does the higher ed business model. Why spend four years and pay $100,000 (if you’re lucky) to master the skills that might take you a year and one-tenth the sum online? University administrators and governing boards who aren’t wrestling with this issue simply aren’t doing their jobs.