The Higher Ed Crisis: Credentialism

Jane Jacobs: A little old lady with a mind as sharp as a tack.

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.

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Interesting points, actually.

    Getting credentials has become an obsession.

    Some recent pieces have noted that in the early to mid 20th century, American colleges did some teaching but the more “elite”: of them were places for the well-born WASPs to make contacts, meet mates, etc. Non WASPs, such as Jews, Irish, Italians, Poles, and other people who may have immigrated more recently were cut out or subjected to an obnoxious quota system based on your ethnic origins.

    The SAT system was designed to do away with such institutional snobbery and make college acceptance more based on your own intellect and abilities rather than who your father was. Another reason was that as the U.S. advanced into the Industrial Age and became more of a global power, the old WASP pool couldn’t produce enough leaders or managers to handle the work.

    It could very well be that this has grown out of control beyond the love of learning and the need to grow an educated middle class. Instead, foreign people, mostly Asians, are taking advantage of what credentialling wrought.

    The middle class has taken a tremendous beating as the corporate model that nurtured them, shuns them. While they get “too expensive” we are paying our CEOS scores of times what they are worth.

    Hence the 1 percent.

    Unfortunately the problem goes much deeper than a simple, Internet learning solution.

    1. Nice to know that occasionally we agree about something!

  2. I agree too. However, with the people who confuse “an education” with a learning a “skill set” for a specific job in a year of drill, I disagree. I hope Mr. Bacon is playing devil’s advocate in constantly misusing the word “education” in this way.

    Credentialism is a big problem. Anyone who has read Jane Jacobs knows that she would never confuse being educated with job training.

    1. Colleges and universities confuse “education” with “job training” more than anyone else!

      1. Richard Avatar

        I’m not sure that anyone would confuse a B.A. in English from UVa with job training.

      2. Richard Avatar

        I’ll add one more comment on the topic. Isn’t a “credentialing” issue at UVa that the Darden folk want other degrees to pay for themselves, with better job prospects for its holders, just like Darden does? In other words if the credentials associated with a degree aren’t valued by the marketplace (which of coure these days is dominated by financial interests), should that degree be considered a lesser degree in allocating resources? This is the issue with allowing the marketplace to determine your priorities – though the marketplace is efficient, it is also based on short-term thinking, sometimes even fads (online education?), and you don’t necessarily want to bet the store on it.

  3. larryg Avatar

    ” never confuse being educated with job training.”

    ok then… it would seem that need to be clearly define the difference, and clearly articulate where UVA wants to go on this and I think it’s a much bigger discussion than the Rector and President. At the end of the day – both of damaged and likely no longer able to contribute to solutions.

  4. larryg Avatar

    when we know that students are getting an “education” and going into debt to the tune of 20, 30, 40K and there is no real demand for a lot of “education” in the job market…. don’t we have a problem?

    It’ one thing to be in debt up to your eyeballs but your “education” actually gets you a job to pay back the loans… it’s quite another to get your “education” and find that it’s basically useless for making a living and paying back the loans.

    What is the role and mission of UVA in this conundrum?

    1. Agreed. When “education” is defined as a broad, liberal arts background that makes people more cultured or better citizens, not something so grubby as preparing one for the world of work, it becomes a plaything of the elite.

  5. First off, a large part of student debt is lifestyle debt. Students borrow more tuition money than they need to so they can spend their own money on cars, cell phones, cable tv, highspeed internet, etc. They have been conned into thinking that the credential will magically transform into a job with an enormous salary. A few years ago the average freshman regardless of major thought they’d start at 75K or something right out of college. If we sold education instead of the magic wand of credential maybe the fools wouldn’t go in to so much debt, and we might have a democracy in which decisions were made by people other than the likes of Ms Dragas.

    It never occurred to me that my major would have any connection with a job of any kind. It didn’t matter. I’m doing fine.

  6. WahooLaw Avatar

    What is it exactly that Universities sell to students? That differs by university.

    At U.Va., part of it is a social experience – let’s face it, U.Va. has been famous as a party school since before the dawn of the 20th Century, not just the 21st. Every year, some students turn down Chicago for U.Va. because Charlottesville is not where fun goes to die. Part of it is attaching the elite brand to yourself – people don’t buy blue and orange ties because they look good. Part of it should be learning critical thinking skills and acquiring a base of core knowledge, but that has become so watered down at U.Va. and its peers that it’s hard to conclude that still applies. And part of it is the sheepskin credential that provides an entry ticket to further endeavors.

    Relatively little of the employability of most U.Va. graduates depends on what specific skills they’ve learned; instead, employers mostly rely on the filtering process that selected those allowed to enroll and selected a subset as the winners within that group. You can’t coach talent, but you can impart skills once someone has been hired.

  7. larryg Avatar

    “Relatively little of the employability of most U.Va. graduates depends on what specific skills they’ve learned; instead, ”

    I think this might epitomize the “vision” conundrum. That statement used to be true. I’m not sure it still is. You have to have something to go with it.

    as far as “lifestyle” borrowing is concerned… if you do not get a degree that has demand in the market AND you borrow money – why would an employer want someone with that kind of judgment?

  8. saunders Avatar

    This is an incredibly large problem that goes way beyond UVA or any University. It is a problem the country, or society, or something like that has to fix. I believe that it started when we watered down the basic skills learned in high school so much that employers turned to colleges and universities to check if a person could write, speak, and think at a reasonable level. But I could be wrong.

  9. thebyurokrat Avatar

    As a relatively young chap with a B.A. and M.P.P., I’d say there is a large difference between job-training and education, but not so clear a divide between either and credentialing. My B.A. was an education, while my M.P.P. was job-training. My degrees are credentials that show I have satisfied the requirements of my programs, from which employers might infer that I have been educated and trained. And as somebody new to their career, employers are keenly interested in the SAT /ACT and GRE scores of applicants, as well as their overall and major/focus GPA.

    I consider my “education” to have been learning the critical thinking skills to apply generic methods of inquiry to a wide variety of subject areas. The ability to dissect and synthesize research was useful in biology, political science, history, or any number of courses. The ability to express ideas cogently both through oral presentation and the written word applied to any field I study. These and others are skills that I gained (or honed) in undergrad.

    My M.P.P. was the continued honing of those skills, with new skillsets in macro- and micro-economics, applied statistics, law, public management, governance, and several other policy-related areas. The program was built around a common core curriculum, and focused heavily on internships and job-placement within policy fields. The second year even features a semester-long client driven project in which students work directly with clients to deliver an individualized product utilizing core skills of policy analysis. Ergo, the M.P.P. serves a credential showing that I have, to the satisfaction of the program, mastered skills directly related to employment as a policy analyst.

    Tl;dr – It’s not so black and white.

  10. […] The Higher Ed Crisis: Credentialism – “An education and a degree are not the same.” This article expands upon that claim. […]

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