Caught between nepotism and credentialism

Feb 19, JDN 2457804

One of the more legitimate criticisms out there of we “urban elites” is our credentialismour tendency to decide a person’s value as an employee or even as a human being based solely upon their formal credentials. Randall Collins, an American sociologist, wrote a book called The Credential Society arguing that much of the class stratification in the United States is traceable to this credentialism—upper-middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants go to the good high schools to get into the good colleges to get the good careers, and all along the way maintain subtle but significant barriers to keep everyone else out.

A related concern is that of credential inflation, where more and more people get a given credential (such as a high school diploma or a college degree), and it begins to lose value as a signal of status. It is often noted that a bachelor’s degree today “gets” you the same jobs that a high school diploma did two generations ago, and two generations hence you may need a master’s or even a PhD.

I consider this concern wildly overblown, however. First of all, they’re not actually the same jobs at all. Even our “menial” jobs of today require skills that most people didn’t have two generations ago—not simply those involving electronics and computers, but even quite basic literacy and numeracy. Yes, you could be a banker in the 1920s with a high school diploma, but plenty of bankers in the 1920s didn’t know algebra. What, you think they were arbitraging derivatives based on the Black-Scholes model?

The primary purpose of education should be to actually improve students’ abilities, not to signal their superior status. More people getting educated is good, not bad. If we really do need signals, we can devise better ones than making people pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and spending years taking classes. An expenditure of that magnitude should be accomplishing something, not just signaling. (And given the overwhelming positive correlation between a country’s educational attainment and its economic development, clearly education is actually accomplishing something.) Our higher educational standards have directly tied to higher technology and higher productivity. If indeed you need a PhD to be a janitor in 2050, it will be because in 2050 a “janitor” is actually the expert artificial intelligence engineer who commands an army of cleaning robots, not because credentials have “inflated”. Thinking that credentials “inflate” requires thinking that business managers must be very stupid, that they would exclude whole swaths of qualified candidates that they could pay less to do the same work. Only a complete moron would require a PhD to hire you for wielding a mop.

No, what concerns me is an over-emphasis on prestigious credentials over genuine competence. This is definitely a real issue in our society: Almost every US President went to an Ivy League university, yet several of them (George W. Bush, anyone?) clearly would not actually have been selected by such a university if their families had not been wealthy and well-connected. (Harvard’s application literally contains a question asking whether you are a “lineal or collateral descendant” of one of a handful of super-wealthy families.) Papers that contain errors so basic that I would probably get a failing grade as a grad student for them become internationally influential because they were written by famous economists with fancy degrees.

Ironically, it may be precisely because elite universities try not to give grades or special honors that so many of their students try so desperately to latch onto any bits of social status they can get their hands on. In this blog post, a former Yale law student comments on how, without grades or cum laude to define themselves, Yale students became fiercely competitive in the pettiest ways imaginable. Or it might just be a selection effect; to get into Yale you’ve probably got to be pretty competitive, so even if they don’t give out grades once you get there, you can take the student out of the honors track, but you can’t take the honors track out of the student.

But perhaps the biggest problem with credentialism is… I don’t see any viable alternatives!

We have to decide who is going to be hired for technical and professional positions somehow. It almost certainly can’t be everyone. And the most sensible way to do it would be to have a process people go through to get trained and evaluated on their skills in that profession—that is, a credential.

What else would we do? We could decide randomly, I suppose; well, good luck with that. Or we could try to pick people who don’t have qualifications (“anti-credentialism” I suppose), which would be systematically wrong. Or individual employers could hire individuals they know and trust on a personal level, which doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous—but we have a name for that too, and it’s nepotism.

Even anti-credentialism does exist, bafflingly enough. Many people voted for George W. Bush because they said he was “the kind of guy you can have a beer with”. That wasn’t true, of course; he was the spoiled child of a billionaire, a man who had never really worked a day in his life. But even if it had been true, so what? How is that a qualification to be the leader of the free world? And how many people voted for Trump precisely because he had no experience in government? This made sense to them somehow. (And, shockingly, he has no idea what he’s doing. Actually what is shocking is that he admits that.)

Nepotism of course happens all the time. In fact, nepotism is probably the default state for humans. The continual re-emergence of hereditary monarchy and feudalism around the world suggests that this is some sort of attractor state for human societies, that in the absence of strong institutional pressures toward some other system this is what people will generally settle into. And feudalism is nothing if not nepotistic; your position in life is almost entirely determined by your father’s position, and his father’s before that.

Formal credentials can put a stop to that. Of course, your ability to obtain the credential often depends upon your income and social status. But if you can get past those barriers and actually get the credential, you now have a way of pushing past at least some of the competitors who would have otherwise been hired on their family connections alone. The rise in college enrollments—and women actually now exceeding men in college enrollment rates—is one of the biggest reasons why the gender pay gap is rapidly closing among young workers. Nepotism and sexism that would otherwise have hired unqualified men is now overtaken by the superior credentials of qualified women.

Credentialism does still seem suboptimal… but from where I’m sitting, it seems like a second-best solution. We can’t actually observe people’s competence and ability directly, so we need credentials to provide an approximate measurement. We can certainly work to improve credentials—and for example, I am fiercely opposed to multiple-choice testing because it produces such meaningless credentials—but ultimately I don’t see any alternative to credentials.

5 thoughts on “Caught between nepotism and credentialism

  1. This gets to the heart of the American fallacy of meritocracy. We claim to want a meritocracy, but we are okay with nepotism. Another important issue in determining social status is discrimination based on the numerous demographics. Along with the credentials many employers want someone with experience (nepotism is a way around this) which means some form of free work that some people cannot afford to do because they have to get paying jobs. I do agree that more egalitarian options seem out of reach.


  2. Thanks for this essay, I like how you’ve broken apart a few things that get lumped together as “anti-intellectualism” and analyzed how they work. I do think you gave up too quickly on anti-credentialism. You wrote, “And how many people voted for Trump precisely *because *he had no experience in government? This made sense to them somehow.” I think it makes good sense, given one widespread, fundamental belief of Trump supporters: the activity of government itself is illegitimate.

    That is, it makes perfect sense to select a non-credentialed person to take over and dismantle an illegitimate activity. If I think greyhound racing is illegitimate on animal welfare grounds, I’d be happy to appoint someone from the ASPCA to take over the Greyhound Racing Association of America. They have no experience managing race tracks, but they do have experience getting them shut down!

    People voted for Trump because they don’t recognize how much good the government does, how essential it is to everything we hold dear. They only see it as a wasteful, obstructive, corrupt group of lawyers and bean counters intent on fleecing the hard-working little people.

    That’s my take on it, anyways. I hope this is helpful, your essay was helpful for me.



    On Sun, Feb 19, 2017 at 10:07 AM, Human Economics wrote:

    > pnrj posted: “Feb 19, JDN 2457804 One of the more legitimate criticisms > out there of we “urban elites” is our credentialism—our tendency to decide > a person’s value as an employee or even as a human being based solely upon > their formal credentials. Randall Collins, an ” >


  3. I have first hand experience working in high nepotism environments and have even benefitted from them nbut they are highly inefficient.

    On anti-credentialism, it’s clever to use someone unqualified to help destroy a system you view as illegitimate, but it’s also arrogant and unhelpful. A lot of harm can be done by someone who doesn’t understand the dynamics of a situation. We all know that counter intuitive results can occur from actions, and this seems even more likely if those in charge do not know the actors involved.

    I think a better, yet flawed, argument against credentialism is that an uncredentialed person is less likely to have been corrupted by the system already. One problem with this is a lack of familiarity allows newcomers to be taken by forms of corruption that more established parties may have moved past. Another problem is what I’d call fundamentalism. An outsider may be working according to principles that are truly impractical for the business at hand. An anti-interest protestant in charge of banking won’t do much good.


  4. “What else would we do? We could decide randomly, I suppose…”

    There are other options. We could look at indicators of merit other than college. For example, in the software industry a programmer’s portfolio could be used to asses her competence. Many credentialism advocates argue that a programmer’s theoretical knowledge or lack thereof may not be readily apparent from their portfolio. But there are alternative indicators of theoretical knowledge as well. Online programming contests such as codeforces and topcoder give everyone in the world a chance to demonstrate their algorithmic problem solving skills for free.


  5. […] Note that this simplified process would not eliminate the incentives to get major, verifiable qualifications like college degrees or years of work experience. In fact, it would focus the incentives so that only those things matter, instead of whatever idiosyncratic or even capricious preferences HR agents might have. There would be no more talk of “culture fit” or “feeling right for the job”, just: “What is their highest degree? How many years have they worked in this industry?” I suppose this is credentialism, but in a world of asymmetric information, I think credentialism may be our only viable alternative to nepotism. […]


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