The Case Against Credentialism

More than 20 years ago James Fallows wrote an article in the Atlantic titled “The Case Against Credentialism.”

It is long and covers a lot of ground. I see two somewhat separate points.

First, he contrasts the “assortment of informal, outside-normal-channels, no-guarantee, and low-prestige activities that is glossed over and glamorized by the term entreprenurialism” with the “tremendous pull exerted by the security, dignity, and order of the professionalized world… how much more dignified is the sound of banker, lawyer…”

This troubles Fallows, even though he himself is a member of the professional world who attained top academic standing. Entrepreneurs innovate and create new industries and generate jobs for people beside themselves. Yet society still bestows higher status on the multitude of lawyers, consultants, and analysts for which the path to the top is through the corridors of elite academic credentialing institutions:

…Most of the real entrepreneurs I know lack the track record of impeccable schooling and early academic success that is supposed to distinguish the meritocracy’s most productive members. What kind of merit system is this, if it discounts the activity on which the collective wealth depends?

Second, he notes the failure of formal credentials and licenses at screening for workplace competence: “Because the credentialing and licensing process uses input measures, mainly years of schooling, to determine who gets into the field, we end up licensing people who are good at studying law or business, which is not necessarily the same thing as being good at the job.”

Example from the world of therapy:

In half of the “effectiveness” studies that Hogan surveyed, non-professional therapists did better than professionals in helping patients, despite their lack of formal education.

Example from he world of air traffic controllers:

Common sense might suggest that the better controllers would be more educated — but the FAA found that fully half the top-ranked controllers had no formal education beyond high school. Many of them had come directly to the FAA for rigorous technical training specifically related to the jobs they were expected to do.

Why are you allowed to go into business without an MBA yet you are not allowed to go into law without a J.D.? The J.D. credential does not seem to have much to do with being an effective lawyer, and the fact that many successful lawyers fail the bar exam after years of adult lawyering should be cause for concern about the credentialing process of the profession. Earning a J.D. and passing the bar exam seem to be retrospective tools about one’s success in law school; not predictive tools about one’s ability to be a lawyer. If I were God, no J.D. would be required to practice law, and the bar exam would be drastically reduced in scope and scale.

The question to ask about all credentialing schemes, whether JD, MBA, real estate license, CFA, etc, is this: Would the very best people working in the profession today obtain the highest possible scores on the license test? In the case of air traffic controllers and therapists, the answer is no. I bet the answer is no for lawyers, businesspeople, and real estate agents, too.

Fallows’s Bottom Line: “A liberal education is good for its own sake, and schooling of any sort can impart a broad perspective that can help in any job. Rather, the charge against credential requirements is that they are simultaneously too restrictive and too lax. They are too restrictive in giving a huge advantage to those who booked early passage on the IQ train and too lax in their sloppy relation to the skills that truly make for competence.”

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