Disrespecting Credentialism

Why are people who hold degrees from very selective schools more likely to advise me to stay in college and get my degree (from a very selective school) whereas people who hold degrees from unknown schools or have no degree at all more are likely to support a decision to drop out?

Because if I drop out I am disrespecting credentialism — which according to Arnold Kling is “the belief that only people with proper credentials should be hired. If you go to college, you implicitly support credentialism–or at least you do not reject it. If you refuse to go to college, then you show disrespect for credentialism. That disrespect may represent a threat to hiring managers who are credentialist.”

Recently, I met a man in Portland who is going through tough career times. He holds an MBA from a top school and, even late in his career, still cites it prominently in his portfolio of work. At this stage in life he clutches to the credential. He advises me to obtain a similar credential. If I and (many) others do not and nevertheless go on to be successful, the value of his decreases. Thus, I value his advice on the matter but recognize his self-interested bias.


Here’s a related rule of thumb I just developed:

If the importance of your credential and the prominence with which you advertise it does not decrease with age, you are not achieving or succeeding that much in the real world. Would a successful lawyer begin a letter to a prospective client, “Dear Joe, I graduated from Columbia Law School in 1990”? Of course not. He’d hang his hat on real experiences. Al Gore’s bio on this page doesn’t even mention Vanderbilt or Harvard, two brand names most people would be eager to display. He doesn’t need to. His work speaks for itself.

The exception to this rule of thumb would be academia, where it seems credentials remain at the fore regardless of professional success. But this would make sense. The very idea of academia is rooted in credentialism.

16 comments on “Disrespecting Credentialism
  • Your rule of thumb makes perfect sense. I know many people with advanced degrees who report to those who are both younger than them and only have a Bachelor’s. The main reason is that the degree is all they have, no practical experience, and not even the “youthful vigor” of their managers.

  • Just want to make it clear (for those readers who know of our friendship) that while I have several degrees from selective schools, I have never advised Ben to stick it out for the sake of getting a degree.

    All other things being equal, a credential helps, but there’s basically no situation I can imagine where the credential of a college degree would actually help Ben.

    It certainly wouldn’t matter when it came to raising money for his next company!

  • One of the turning points in a hard time I recently went through was when I decided to get rid of a bunch of artefacts of past achievement that I realized I’d been using to prop up my self image for too long — to take down old websites, removed all the hype I’d tried to create about myself, etc (stuff that had worked).

    It was a sort of act of faith, in the future of my self, to get rid of that dry old crust…

    In my mind your rule of thumb is spot on.

  • One distinct disadvantage of excessive reliance on credentials and flaunting it is that it sets very high, sometimes unrealistic or disproportionate expectation about the candidate’s capacity. It deprives others an opportunity to underrate her and leaves her with no margin for error. That in effect denies her the precious opportunity to overdeliver and startle them. She’s forever taken for granted, whatever she does is, well, no great shakes. The flipside is that if she flops, there’s no forgiveness. That, is the hardest part.

  • Ben-

    While I can see the point you are making, I have to tell you from someone who had a very successful career and then returned to the university in her 30’s, a degree does mean and is something that should be a goal of every person. Education through a college/or a university setting is of great worth. It means accomplishing; it means sticking with something even when you find professor who know less than you do.

    Life is about education. We have developed a system–and it seems to be working pretty well-that should allow us to seek learning our whole lives.

    My father graduated with numerous degrees. He practiced totally outside of any of those degrees in his everyday career. Did he ever begrudge the time spent in school? NO! Every conversation I ever had with him somehow always came back to something he had learned in a college class unrelated to his career but that was helping him now.

    In the Midwest I see time and time again families who celebrate High School graduation like it is a wedding or state event. WHY? This shouldn’t be the end of learning. BUT for many of these families it is. So sad.

    I believe and I will continue to brainwash my children into accepting the fact that they will finish college. It’s something they will never regret–like piano practicing they do everyday!

    Someday they will thank me! 🙂

  • Ben,
    AS someone with an Ivy League undergraduate and a JD from a fairly well recognized law school, I believe I can speak on this. I agree with both your experience of who recommends finishing school and with your premise of highlighting past credentials.
    In my own case, I appreciate the undergraduate school more for the people I met there than for the credential it provided. It does offer a sort of instant (and not always deserved) credibility. However, I try not to highlight it because I’d prefer to be either underestimated, or at least judged on what I’ve accomplished since then. As for law school, I regard going as a mistake on my part (I don’t practice) and I think that the working experience I would have gained otherwise would have been more valuable.
    Certainly, I don’t want my schools to be the highlight of my life, for as I grow older, I grow further away from the high point. When I see people advertising their school with personalized license plates, for example, I assume a certain amount of low self-confidence on their part.
    When it comes to other people and whether or not they should go to college, it has to be a person-by-person decision. If someone came to me today and said they were accepted to my alma mater, my recommendation that they go would be a yes (provided it would not break them financially, not likely an issue at most Ivies these days). As for recommending that they finish, it depends on how mature they are, if they’re life long learners, if they are self-starters.
    You don’t need the credentials Ben. College is good for you as a networking experience, as a nudge into some areas of study you may not have explored or have neglected. But if you announced tomorrow that you were torn between a new business idea (or even the itch to explore the world and write about it), I’d unequivocally suggest the latter.

  • I’ll confess to having an undergraduate degree from a selective university. It was a good experience in many ways, but it left me woefully unprepared for the workaday world. I came out of school with very few salable skills, and that really hindered me during my twenties.

    What saved my bacon was good old job experience. After a few years of working this job, that job, any old job, I had quite a skills bank to draw on.

    In addition to my undergraduate degree, I also have quite a few credits from community college, and I can’t recommend this enough. When it comes to helping you quickly learn things that you need to know, you just can’t beat community colleges.

  • Some people lean on credentials because they have no other way of winning an argument (I have a PhD so you have to believe me. 🙂

    Some people recommend credentials because they want you to agree with what they did. (As when your parents recommend that you have kids 🙂

    Some people pay attention to who you are, not the letters after your name or your school tie. (Those are the people you need to impress.)

  • Ben,

    you should drop out of school, and devote your time to doing what you do best.. write, debate, explore, develop… etc. I sense it in your writing that you really feel that you could do more in life outside of campus.. I may just be reading into it.. but that is what I see. I have held an executive sales job for the last 4 years, one that requires a degree.. and i’m a college dropout with 2 years of school under my belt.. I have been going to junior college taking two classes a semester, but have no real interest in getting a degree. If you visit payscale.com; there are some interesting features on degrees and the salaries that come from them.. if you look at the top four paying salaries.. all our engineering. Other than engineering, medical, and teaching.. degrees seem a novelty to me. a time filler. i understand the benefits of networking, and enjoying your youth, and meeting future mates, losing virginity, and simply having a great time figuring out life for 5 years.. but as far as success in the business world.. i’m not buying it! I want my kids, and will push them to go to college, because i think it’s a great place for them to mature.. and i want them to stay kids as long as possible.

  • In regards to the comment concerning life being about education, I tend to agree, but do not believe necessarily that such education is better when received from a college professor, than it is if the information/knowledge is learned on one’s own.

    Certainly, there are benefits to sitting in a class, and listening to a professor who is extremely knowledgeable about a topic. But that same benefit can come from reading a well-written book on the topic. If you have a curious mind, there is little you can not learn on your own.

    I don’t deny the benefits a degree can have in regards to job prospects, but the actual educational benefits of sitting in a classroom, as opposed to learning the information on your own, I believe, are less certain.

  • Ben,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on the value of credentials. I have always found it more insightful when the person describes what they got out of their experience, whether it be community college or a round-the-world trip, than “paper credentials” on the resume. Obviously the top-tier schools have a lot to offer in terms of recruiting and networking, but in an isolated situation they are only as valuable as the person is able to tell me they were life changing or meaningful to the task or job at-hand.

    It’s interesting that you point out Al Gore and not using his credentials. What say you about the fact that Obama broadcasts Columbia and Harvard all over the place?

  • Bill – since Obama’s career has involved academic life (professor at U Chicago), it would make sense that it would come up, more. But it also speaks to his general lack of political experience — Al Gore was a senator for longer time than Obama.

  • This seems very applicable for business degrees, and very inapplicable for engineering, medical, science, and possibly other degrees. Beware of generalizing too far.

  • I’m not a lover of credentialism but I do think it’s worth finishing an undergraduate degree from somewhere, anywhere. It just doesn’t seem to me an experience for which there is a substitute.

    If you’re finding it boring, take classes on things you know absolutely nothing about, or that you’re not sure you can pass. It will open your eyes just to know people think about such stuff.

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