I’ve complained before about credentialism. Now it turns out that top experts, credible men with Ph.D’s in their field, agree with me. My friends think I must be some kind of genius, and, yeah, they’re probably right.
Points the gentlemen make:
1. The more people that go to college, the less useful college is as a signal to employers. The result is that one as to spend 4 years and thousands of dollars just not to be left behind.
2. Employers tend to overvalue the benefit of a degree–in many jobs and professions, the performance of the college-educated was not significantly different from the performance of those who had high school diplomas (I have some questions about this. The article does not give very many details of the studies from which this conclusion comes, and what information there is is more suggestive than conclusive. Certainly in technical fields college teaches something, and even in non-technical fields college probably serves as a signal that the person is somewhat dependable, task-oriented, and otherwise imbued with a minimum of bourgeois virtue. Could it really be true that this signal is false? Perhaps. But I think the real issue is probably the cost and the length of college education as compared to the benefits. Is there really no cheaper and shorter way to send a signal that one is reliable, etc., than getting a college degree?
3. Credentialism tends to reduce social mobility because it makes it harder and more expensive to break into certain high-status professions.
Credentialism is cruelty. Youths going to school in hopes of a better life find themselves still even with the pack and with a host of debt (a partial explanation, I think, for Americans increasingly postponing marriage and family, even among the Saints).
What to do?
Stuart Buck, who tipped me off to the article, has a wild answer:
Just throwing out an idea here, but maybe Congress should ban all but the top 20% of students from going to college. (Or maybe 25%? I’m open to negotiation on the exact percentage.) Counterintuitive, no? But that might be the only thing that would work. There’s a collective action problem here. If everyone else in a society is racing to get the best credentials, then you as an individual may well be worse off if you drop out of the race — even though everyone in society would be better off if more people dropped out. Same for businesses: If you’re the human resources director for a corporation, and you know that most hard-working and intelligent people in our society do in fact have a college education or a graduate degree, then it is only rational for you to demand those credentials too — even if their formal education is going to be absolutely useless on the job.
But with a ban in place, you’d have a lot of people in America who would be hard-working, intelligent, and deserving of good jobs. And the people doing the hiring would recognize that fact. They would no longer be able to assume that if you lacked a college degree, you must be in the bottom 30%.
One of the academics in the article I link to suggests making it illegal to require formal credentials in hiring (which strikes me as another wild idea, and unenforceable to boot).
Probably there isn’t an answer. We can do what we can to stop treating degrees as a measure of social status; to encourage youth to think seriously about the costs and benefits of education and the way it will open some choices and cut off others; as LDS employers, to encourage ways of sorting potential employees that don’t require four year degrees; and to resist measures that make formal degrees a legal requirement for working in more fields.
What’s really needed is a better signal that doesn’t require lots of schooling, but I confess I don’t know what that would be.