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.