Credentialism and educational inflation refers to a number of related processes involving increased demands for formal educational qualifications, and the devaluation of these qualifications. In Western society, there has been increasing requirements for formal qualifications or certification for jobs, a process called credentialism or professionalization. This process has, in turn, led to credential inflation (also known as credential creep, academic inflation or degree inflation), the process of inflation of the minimum credentials required for a given job and the simultaneous devaluation of the value of diplomas and degrees. These trends are also associated with grade inflation, a tendency to award progressively higher academic grades for work that would have received lower grades in the past. In countries in the Middle East, where the rulers have traditionally used public sector jobs as a form of political appeasement for the middle classes, this has resulted in many youth seeking university degrees that are only suited for work in public sector roles, making them unqualified for private sector roles.
There are some occupations which used to require a high school diploma, such as construction supervisors, loans officers, insurance clerks and executive assistants, that are increasingly requiring a bachelor’s degree. Some jobs that formerly required candidates to have a bachelor’s degree, such as becoming a Director in the federal government, tutoring students, or being a history tour guide in a historic site, now require a master’s degree. As well, some jobs that used to require a master’s degree, such as junior scientific researcher positions and sessional lecturer jobs, now require a Ph.D. Finally, some jobs that used to require a Ph.D, such as university professor positions, are increasingly requiring a postdoctoral fellowship.
Credentialism and professionalization
Credentialism is a reliance on formal qualifications or certifications to determine whether someone is permitted to undertake a task, speak as an expert or work in a certain field. It has also been defined as “excessive reliance on credentials, especially academic degrees, in determining hiring or promotion policies.”. Credentialism has also been defined as occurring where the credentials for a job or a position are upgraded, even though there is no skill change that makes this increase necessary.
Professionalization is the social process by which any trade or occupation is transformed into a true “profession of the highest integrity and competence.” This process tends to involve establishing acceptable qualifications, a professional body or association to oversee the conduct of members of the profession and some degree of demarcation of the qualified from unqualified amateurs. This creates “a hierarchical divide between the knowledge-authorities in the professions and a deferential citizenry.” This demarcation is often termed “occupational closure”, as it means that the profession then becomes closed to entry from outsiders, amateurs and the unqualified: a stratified occupation “defined by professional demarcation and grade.” The origin of this process is said to have been with guilds during the Middle Ages, when they fought for exclusive rights to practice their trades as journeymen, and to engage unpaid apprentices.
Over the past sixty years in the Western world, and more recently in developing countries, there has been significant growth in the number of people who have educational credentials, an increase in the number of credentialing bodies, and a growth in the use of educational credentials as a way of selecting people for employment.
Psychologist Tony Buon has stated that in demanding credentials for certain occupations, employers’ reasons fall into two rather crude categories:
- The Investment Effect-credentials show that the applicant has undergone certain educational training that has made the applicant more productive.
- The Screening Effect-education, and hence credentials, indicate certain attributes in the applicant that the employer wants.
Buon cautions that this is an uneasy dichotomy and that it is probable that in every case, to some extent, the screening and the investment effect would co-exist.
An employer may require a diploma, professional license or academic degree for a job which can be done by applying skills acquired through experience, informal study, or less extensive study. One example is the requirement by some investment banks that new hires have an M.Sc. in Economics. Jobs that, in the past, required a high school diploma (such as entry level policy analysts in the government) increasingly require a B.A. degree or even an M.A. during the screening process.
Credentialism can be lessened if certification accurately reflects actual skill competencies and expectations of those skill competencies. As Tony Buon & Bob Compton (1990) state, given that the entire recruitment process is aimed at predicting future success, it does not make a great deal of sense to rely on only one indicator (i.e. educational credentials). The results of at least one study support this view, and suggest that employers see experience as a better indication of potential work performance than educational credentials.
The term “credentialism” also refers to an over-emphasis on certificates and degrees as a way of determining social status. Credentialism can lead to credential inflation. Sociologist Randall Collins’ 1979 book The Credential Society “examine[s] the connection between credentialism and stratification.”
Credential creep is the process of inflation of the minimum job requirement. This may happen when a professional organization increases the entry to practice requirements for the profession, or it may be the result of “one-upsmanship” among candidates for a job, creating a kind of de facto increase in required credentials for a position.
In the early 1900s (decade), an individual with a high school diploma could essentially work as a banking professional and rise to the ranks of a branch manager or to even branch president. However, the quest for further education, the industrial revolution and the subsequent surge in national population in the U.S.A. in the mid-20th century resulted in a professional transposition. In the process, the bachelor’s degree supplanted the standing of high school training, and the credentials required for certain position increased. This occurrence continued up to the end of the last century; as a furtherance of this trend based on the same conditions, the early years of the current century saw the master’s degree displacing the bachelor’s degree in some job entry positions.
For instance, in the late 1980s, a bachelor’s degree was the standard ticket to enter the profession of occupational therapy. By the 1990s, a master’s degree was expected. Today, a doctorate is becoming the norm. This change was due to the explosion of bachelor’s degrees spurred by the rise in knowledge exchange–hinged on population growth and technological innovation. With the advent of globalization, recent years see the Ph.D. taking over the role of the master’s degree–especially professional degrees. Universities are currently reporting significant renewed interest in their graduate programs, with a particular focus on Ph.D. study, as candidates consider retraining or adding new skills to their resumes that will benefit them if the economic situation improves. What once was training for the academic profession and open by a minor assemblage of individuals absorbed in research has become a bench-mark for some job entry positions. This change is forcing individuals to push for more advanced degrees to be considered for some positions.
“Academic inflation”, or “education inflation,” is the process of inflation of the minimum job requirement, and the simultaneous growing number of higher educated persons. This results in an excess of college-educated individuals with lower degrees (associate and bachelor’s degrees), and even higher qualifications (master’s or doctorate degrees), competing for too few jobs that require these degrees, and devaluation of educational degrees. This condition causes an intensified race for higher qualification and education in a society where a bachelor’s degree today is no longer sufficient to gain employment in the same jobs that may have only required a two- or four-year degree in former years. Inflation has occurred in the minimum degree requirements for jobs, to the level of master’s degrees, Ph.D.s, and post-doctoral, even where advanced degree knowledge is not absolutely necessary to perform the required job.
Academic inflation occurs when university graduates take up work that was not formerly done by graduates of a certain level, and higher-degree holders continue to migrate to this particular occupation until it eventually becomes a field known as a “graduate profession” and the minimum job requirements have been inflated academically for low-level job tasks. It is an effect of overeducation.
The institutionalizing of professional education has resulted in fewer and fewer opportunities for young people to work their way up from artisan to professional status (e.g., as an engineer) by “learning on the job”. Academic inflation leads employers to put more and more faith into certificates and diplomas awarded on the basis of other people’s assessments.
The term “academic inflation” was popularized by Sir Ken Robinson in his TED (technology, entertainment, design) Talk entitled “Schools Kill Creativity”.
Academic inflation is similar to inflation of paper currencies where too much currency chases too few commodities.
Credential inflation or degree inflation
Credential inflation refers to the devaluation of educational or academic credentials over time and a corresponding decrease in the expected advantage given a degree holder in the job market. Credential inflation is thus similar to price inflation, and describes the declining value of earned certificates and degrees. Credential inflation has been recognized as an enduring trend over the past century in Western higher education, and is also known to have occurred in ancient China and Japan, and at Spanish universities of the 17th century.
A good example of credential inflation is the decline in the value of the US high school diploma since the beginning of the 20th century, when it was held by less than 10 percent of the population. At the time, high school diplomas attested to middle-class respectability, and for many years even provided access to managerial level jobs. More recently, however, the high school diploma barely qualifies the graduate for manual or menial service work.
Another indicator of credential inflation is the relative decline in the wage differential between those with college degrees and those with only high school diplomas. Jobs that were open to high school graduates a century ago now routinely require not just a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree as well–without an appreciable change in required skills.
A predictable result of credential inflation is a glut of the credential markets and overschooling. It is estimated that 30 percent of the college graduates in 2005 will be forced into jobs that do not require a degree. M.B.A. or M.A. holders may end up working as store clerks or servers.
The causes of credential inflation are not well understood; however, it is thought to be the result of ever-expanding access to higher education and the overproduction of degrees. Qualification inflation, as it is also known, is recognized as stemming from young people’s increased length of involvement in higher education. This has resulted in low-level jobs that were once available to those who didn’t finish high school now expecting graduates. Other possible sources include the proliferation of formal degree requirements for gainful employment (due to the expansion of credential markets), the self-interest of college presidents and administrators (who are better off expanding their institutions), and an ever increasing need for obtaining a competitive edge in the labor market, all working together to create an expansionary inflation spiral.
In particular, the internal dynamics of credential inflation threaten higher education initiatives around the world because credential inflation appears to operate independently of market demand for credentials. Credential markets themselves, as described by signalling theory, use earned degrees as a measure of ability in screening potential employees. This is because employers take it for granted that degrees are positively correlated with greater ability. (See Michael Spence’s job-market signalling model.)
Although credential inflation has been implicated in a long list of ills that plague American higher education, it remains largely ignored by policy makers and academics.
It has also been widely noted that the credential inflation spiral is accelerating, with far-ranging negative consequences.
Problems attributed to credential inflation
Among the problems in higher education that have been attributed to credential inflation, are:
- Climbing college tuition and fees (colleges charge what the credential markets will bear); mounting burdens of student debt (delays in marrying and starting families, resulting in smaller families, and higher levels of birth defects);
- Shallow, credential-driven student learning in college courses; disengaged students; the loss of degree-value in the job market; failed curricular reforms; perennial failed attempts at teacher education reform.
- Hyper-competitive college admissions and soaring numbers of applicants for desirable upper-echelon schools (as growing access at the bottom drives competition at the top of the heap); the appearance of entrance-exam preparation schools and college admissions consultants
- Increases in high school dropout rates and the overall devaluation of high school diplomas; more wasted years in graduate school (Ivar Berg famously called them “aging vats”)
- Raids on the wall of separation between secondary and postsecondary education that took over a century to establish (through the awarding of college credit for Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, etc., courses given at local high schools);
- Overworked faculty, crowded lecture halls, impersonal courses, a standing army of poorly paid part-time adjunct professors; a corporate culture of rampant cynicism and the loss of faith, generally, in higher education; cheating and dishonesty of all kinds
- The loss of the capacity to innovate; stifled reform and other manifestations of increased institutional path-dependence.
- Grade inflation
- Devaluation of job and employment experience.
Grade inflation is the tendency to award progressively higher academic grades for work that would have received lower grades in the past. It is frequently discussed in relation to education in the United States, and to GCSEs and A levels in England and Wales. It is also an issue in Canada and many other nations, especially Australia and New Zealand.
Possible problems associated with grade inflation
- Grade inflation makes it more difficult to identify the best students, as more students are awarded the highest available grade.
- Grade inflation is not uniform between schools. This places students in more stringently graded schools and departments at an unfair disadvantage.
- Grade inflation is not uniform among disciplines.
- Grade inflation makes it more difficult to compare students who took their exams at different times.
Princeton University took a rare stand against grade inflation in 2004, and publicly announced a policy designed to curb it. The policy states that “A” grades should account for less than 35% of the grades for undergraduate courses, and less than 55% of grades for junior and senior independent work. The standard by which the grading record of each department or program is evaluated is the percentage of “A” grades given over the previous three years.
Arguments against the existence of grade inflation
- In 1995, Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education, reviewed student transcripts from more than 3,000 universities and reported that student grades have actually declined slightly over the last 20 years.
- A report issued by the National Center for Education Statistics surveyed all 16.5 million undergraduate students in the USA in the year 1999-2000. The study concluded that 28.9% of graduates received mostly “C” grades or lower, while only 14.5% received mostly “A” grades. These results conform to grading based upon a normal distribution.