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.”

15 comments on “The Case Against Credentialism
  • You’ve argued in favor of elites. I’m not sure why you think elites in general are good but credentialism is bad.

  • I argue in favor of people who have elite knowledge and skills related to
    certain areas of work.

    Credentialing institutions, as I write in this post, are not effectively
    screening for these things.

  • I would be more in favor of keeping the bar exam and drastically curtailing law school. Credentialing makes sense to ensure people have at least the minimum technical skills to do their job; schooling by contrast just takes people out of the workplace for an extended period of time in order to effectively signal a skill that may in fact may not be there. In the case of law school at least, there is a set of knowledge that can be objectively tested (less clear in the case of business school / entrepreneurialism) I agree with your perspectives on education broadly, but I’m more optimistic on credentialing as a more efficient signal.

  • Every single career services function features half a dozen partners at top law firms telling us that it doesn’t matter what we learn in law school.

    Fundamentally, law school is a parasitic industry disconnected from the needs of a practicing lawyer. The bar exam is a crude means of reducing competition.

    So, yeah, I’m on board with Fallows.

  • Q: Aren’t there some credentials success stories?

    *I am thinking of the success of LPN programs and various medical technologist certification programs. This is a way to get people into the field and working in a shorter period of time with preliminary training and certification that they know the basics.

    *With certification, training, and work experience, technologists can perform functions that previously had to be done by doctors.

  • If I were God, I would have had Fallows’ article properly edited. I read every word.

    I agree that “social competition would be more open, the economy would be more flexible, and standards of performance would be higher if credential requirements gave way to tests of specific skills.”

    But just for fun I’d like to see a critique of credentialism vs. entrepreneurship using the vocabulary of dialectical materialism. Susan Sontag must have had something to say about this.

    It’s very true that “American society is more open than most others, but it still requires the wisely chosen birth,” and for a moment I thought Fallows might actually get to the diamond in the lotus of the matter.

    I was caught up in the sustained pathos of his rhetoric, but couldn’t help noticing what short shrift (okay, no shrift) he gave to the symbolic role of credentials in our society as keys to the Waspish temple of privilege.

    The trick is that you don’t get ‘in’ unless you were born in.

    The old boy aristocracy still doesn’t like Blacks or Jews– it regards the professional classes as its personal servants and Mexico is a colony to supply cheap yardmen.

    Their lawyers and their doctors are the ‘help’, and it’s only a highly ironic noblesse oblige that keeps them civil to the Nicaraguan maids.

    Human qualities that make a superb psychotherapist– empathy, a lack of defensiveness, an alertness to human subtlety– are as alien to the old boy sensibility as muddy boots in the yacht club.

    At least our society is no longer so naive that it could read what must have been a quaint anachronism even in 1985 without laughing hysterically:

    “Because successful business practice depends to some extent on appearances, business may never be as completely open as America’s one true meritocracy–sports.”

  • These are all excellent points, but I don’t think you can fully address this issue without examining why credentialing exists, which is unquestionably to benefit the incumbents. Take the legal profession. When the capital cost to enter the profession requires nearly $200k, not to mention the opportunity cost of 3 years of not working, you set up a major bar to entry. Much easier for an incompetent lawyer to demand $125 an hour when there’s nobody to undercut him.

    The argument made by the politicians being paid off is that such a credential ensures a basic level of competence. Anyone in the legal profession can tell you the bar exam is a laughable metric to judge competence by. Anyone who has ever used a real estate agent would tell you worse.

  • Alot of the above seems arguments to fix the system…not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Some forms of credentialism actually check others. For instance, law school and the MBA as a means to wealth isn’t going away any time soon. Micro-credentialism, say provided via associations like SHRM and ASTD (or even those provided by Microsoft and other IT industry companies) at least provide a means of reward for time and money spent on education. It helps create a meritocracy, even if an imperfect one.

    I think to change the nature of these credentials you have to revise the tests with the help of science to reflect both educational best practice and the specific outcomes you are trying to achieve.

  • Fallows addressed the issue of why credentialing exists, to wit: “But the economic logic that lay behind the pilots’ association shaped the other organizations as well. They controlled entry into their fields, they often raised professional standards, and they sheltered their members from the more chaotic side of the marketplace.”

    Unquestionably credentialing does exist to benefit the incumbents, as James says, yet even with the bars to entry in the legal profession, to use his example, the number of lawyers in the US proliferated in the last hundred years faster than the population.

    Now I would ask how many law firms are outsourcing legal work offshore.

    I have to say Fallow’s article is a tour de force of social analysis, but I loved the unintended humor of the typo in this sentence: “Luck muttered, but a prudent man could make his own luck.”

  • Someone sent me this link:

    The reason why law-school graduation was initially demanded before an individual could sit for the bar exam was that the ABA wanted to reduce competition. Prior to the 1920s, most lawyers did not go to law school, but studied on their own while working for law firms. The ABA realized that imposing a requirement of several years of study would act as a barrier to entry and used its clout to get nearly all states to enact laws mandating graduation from an ABA-accredited law school before taking the bar exam. I covered the history of bar association cartelization in this Cato Policy Analysis back in 1998.

    The focus on the number of law schools is, I think, misplaced. The ABA has accredited a few new ones in recent years, such as Elon University’s here in NC. Simply because you graduate from law school, however, does not make you a member of the legal profession. You’ve got to pass the state bar exam, and the level of difficulty and cut scores can be adjusted. Prof. Charles Rounds, who recently wrote about the deterioration of law-school education for the Pope Center, tells me that in Massachusetts at least, the bar exam has been eased a lot in recent years.

    I’m not saying that bar exams should be very hard or very easy. I think they ought to be optional and the legal profession deregulated. State licensing does not protect consumers against bad lawyering, but it distorts the legal-services market: We may have too many lawyers, but for poorer people with low-dollar legal problems, there are not enough practitioners. The legal profession acknowledges that, but insists that the solution is government-subsidized legal help through the Legal Services Corporation. A free market would be far preferable.

  • Ben – You ask “Why are you allowed to go into business without an MBA yet you are not allowed to go into law without a J.D.?”

    Given the dull drudgery of the profession of lawyers (read up the legalese night after night and spit it out before duller juries during the day) and real estate consultants (stop at showing people wonderful properties without being able to afford one), you need someone to do the dirty job. Prescribing qualifications to be attained thro passing exams is the best way to attract the risk averse, theory wallers to make the grade, leaving the riskier, far more exciting realms of creativity to the enterprising lots.

  • The part where I don’t completely agree is where he says that measurement is the solution to credentialism’s problem.

    In academia we have a current problem of an unholy alliance between credentialism and measurement (and magerialism) which is attempting to measure the impact of research output. To cut a very long story short what this has lead to is ranking (credentialism!) of various research journals by “quality” and “impact factor”. The goal is to publish as many papers as possible in the highest quality journals.

    Obviously, part of the problem is that my example comes from academia, home of credentialism.

  • I think Michael Gelb talked about in one of his books that there was an experiment done with 4.0 students at Princeton university and they were asked to take the same exam in which they got their 4.0 after a number of years.
    The average was a failing mark…
    Something like that…

  • Ben – you have hit the nail on the head,here in the UK the goverment are advocating more higher education without any endgame.
    As someone who left school at 15 without any qualifications,due to being poor,i have been recently reading various books ( for own amusement ! )on the history of education / economics.
    Do you think there is also the issue of firms prefering (like women),to poach new staff from rival firms ? that way they get inside gossip , house training all done for free.
    Perhaps firms are simply bewildered to try to screen thousands of applicants,to find the “right one” and so each year just rise the bar higher to discourage applications.

    From my lowly position as a kitchen porter ,i have noticed
    the adverts requiring
    chefs to have at least 15 years michelin star experience and credentials a yard long and so ruling out all but about ten people in the world !
    Will there come a point,when
    everyone will study until they are 35,work for 5 years and retire early,due to burnt out.

    I don’t see a way forward,its like what Plutarch said about the gurads,any new body that could in theory judge the ” worth ” of a person,would themselves have to be appointed.

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