Arnold Kling  

Credentialism Trap?

PRINT
New and Exciting Economics... Decline in Cancer Deaths...

Now Bryan writes,


It is also important for employees to be conscientious and conformist. And while we can accurately assess someone's intelligence with a short IQ test, it's a lot harder to find out how conscientious and conformist someone is.

As he goes on to say, someone with the intelligence to go to college who passes up the opportunity is sending a signal of independence, which may be a contrary indicator for employers.

Along the same lines, education provides a signal about your support for credentialism--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.

I remember hearing a company founder in the Dotcom era saying that he only wanted to hire MBA's from top schools. I thought to myself that this was silly. When you are a start-up, you need to find people who are better than their credentials. The last thing you can afford to do is pay a premium for credentials. But this guy, who had an MBA from a top school, was evidently uncomfortable around people with more talent than credentials.

One would expect credentialism to be strongest is in fields where credentialism is crucial to income. Professors and teachers would be strongly credentialist in their hiring philosophy, because without credentialism, formal education loses some of its value.

The more you want people to place a high value on your credentials, the more you will want to reward people who are credentialist and punish people who are not. If you are trying to use your Harvard MBA credential to climb the corporate ladder, then you want to hire people who are impressed by Harvard MBA's, and you would feel threatened by people who are not impressed by Harvard MBA's. And who would be more likely to respect the Harvard MBA credential than someone with a similar credential?

Thus, you have the credentialism trap. Once people who are credentialist have power, then everyone who wants power has to bow toward credentialism.

My Dotcom era example notwithstanding, I believe that the trend toward entrepreneurship may start to undermine credentialism. In addition, as economic change accelerates and people have to change careers more often, credentialism will be too large a source of friction.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (22 to date)
David Thomson writes:

“it's a lot harder to find out how conscientious and conformist someone is.”

Yes, how will you be able to predict the likelihood of their being well behaved intellectual sluts? The credentialism trap protects the ill earned fame of second raters like John Kenneth Galbraith, John Rawls, and Stephen Bryer. Few dare to criticize them out of fear of destroying their careers. Much of Harvard University’s highly esteemed reputation is solely the result of not so subtle threats. Either one sluts for the leftist intellectual establishment---or they will be severely harmed.

Our current laws greatly add to the problem. Bill Gates never finished college. Microsoft might think twice before hiring someone like him. The company would almost certainly risk a major law suit if it eventually promoted Gates over a “minority candidate” possessing advance degrees behind their name.

rakehell writes:

In Bryan's last post a commenter mentioned "mastery of the material." Credentials ideally should assess this. Perhaps it boils down to what kind of industry or position you are hiring for, and whether it calls for "hard" or "soft" skills.

aaron writes:

This supports my hypothesis that because boys are more rebelious, since we shifted to more feminate teaching styles and methodologies the percieved incidence of ADD and ADHD went up. It also explains why college admissions are declining for men. The content has gone down in value and it is mostly just a credential. Men are more likely to reject credentialism.

Paired with the observation that intelligent people are more risk seeking, I'm afraid not that boys are being discriminated against, but we might be alienating some of the most intelligent people in our society.

jvcn writes:

But it all depends. In a world of high uncertainty, the signalling/information value of credentials may become MORE not less important. And credentialism may be ineradicably tied in to the critical signalling you need.

Have you also thought of the possibility that the people most likely to have the skill sets you need are also -- on the average -- more prone to want credentialing regardless of its "productive" value? This has certainly been true for every society that has wanted to nurture a cognitive elite.

It may be no easier to get certain elites while eliminating credentialing than it would be to hire top programmers while insisting that they never, ever play any computer, puzzle, or board games at home or work.

Steve Sailer writes:

Excellent insight.

T.R. Elliott writes:

Oh dear. Female teaching styles? We've feminized the teaching force? Are they feeding the kids estrogen in the water supply? Is this a conspiracy we should be concerned about?

Tin foil hats notwithstanding, I understand the gist of this whole signaling discussion, but--true to form--I just find it nonsense to consider a "degree" in some sort of vacuum. Might as well be juggling invisible balls.

My case. I always bring up my experience. And why not. I double majored in math and physics. Highly general undergraduate program. Then master in engineering/applied physics. Also fairly general. Most of my peers have gone on to great success. Entrepreneurs, etc. They learned, in college, a set of analytical tools that they can then bring to bear on a whole host of problems. It's unforunate that, in the case of Caplan (if I remember correctly) he's not used his education that much (he said as such if I'm not mistaken). I've drawn on my again and again and again. Both in engineering and then when I made the jump into the business side and marketing.

During the growth of the company, I was involved with hiring 100s and 1000s of people (I mentioned we went from about 500 to 13,000 employees). Visited many many universities in the US and well as in India.

And you know what. There is a fairly good correlation between college standing and grades and capabilities. Not entirely. There are people who slip through one way or the other. And we sometimes catch them. Low grades, but the interviews show them to be competent. And we've even brought up some fairly capable high school or college students.

But by and large, they just don't compare to top notch college graduates. I'm talking engineering, circuit design, software engineering, systems engineering, and the likes.

This idea that entrepreneurialism is somehow going to change this is just plain nonsense. It isn't. The companies DO NOT WANT TO TRAIN THE PEOPLE and as it stands right now, whether signaling or IQ, WE DON'T HAVE TO DO THE DEGREE THAT WOULD BE NECESSARY.

I respect Kling's internet business experience, but that type of business, setting up a web site, etc etc was a great way to make a killing pre 2000 but they were a dime a dozen. Loads of people made it big. Loads more failed miserably. And a coin flip, as much as anything else, largely dicated whether they made a killing (by selling early) or failed miserably.

I think this discussion line is still debating angels dancing on pins while the real world continues to actually make things and do stuff that makes a difference.

dearieme writes:

This suggestion might even be constructive:- could we learn something useful by studying how often potential employers check whether a job candidate actually does hold the credentials he claims? I ask because I have done such a check only once: the candidate really did hold adequate credentials - actually they were probably qualifications, since it was a technical job - but had also claimed credentials he didn't have. We rejected him. He is now a Member of the European Parliament. (Apologies if I've told you the story before, but I do find it a cracker.)

T.R. Elliott writes:

dearieme : Hmm. Bush could learn a few things about checking qualifications, given that George C. Deutsch just resigned after lying about graduating from Texas A&M and Michael Brown also resigned because he had a fake resume.

Tell you what I think though: this Deutsch guy and Brown both would not likely have survived the interviewing gauntlet that we had in place. Both were/are losers and it's really not that hard to detect 'em.

Vorn writes:

David Thomson:

You really are ridiculous. You refer to John Rawls as one of your "second raters." (I am not sure if "raters" is a word... It certainly is awkward.)

Based on what measure? That you disagree with A Theory of Justice? Are we to base our assessments of an academic's worth based on your personal opinion?

In fact, John Rawl's A Theory of Justice is the most important work in political philosophy in the 20th century. That is, based upon the views of those who are in the profession. Do you really think your opinion is more valid than theirs? On what basis?

I will note another point. You strike me as arrogant. The three intellectuals you criticize each come from three different fields. John Kenneth Galbraith is an economist. John Rawl's was a political philosopher, and Steven Breyer was a law professor. Do you possess expert knowledge in all three fields? It is possible, but I think highly unlikely.

I suspect your assessment of whether or not these intellectuals are "first-rate" or "second-rate" has everything to do with whether or not you agree with them. That certainly is no way to make such an assessment.

Vorn writes:

Thomson:

"Our current laws greatly add to the problem. Bill Gates never finished college. Microsoft might think twice before hiring someone like him. The company would almost certainly risk a major law suit if it eventually promoted Gates over a 'minority candidate' possessing advance degrees behind their name."

Regarding my previous post, I think that this comment alone demonstrates that you really are quite ignorant concerning law. Yet you think you have the ability to put down Steven Breyer, a formerly a law professor at Harvard Law School.

To prove discrimination, you either need direct evidence of discrimination (something like an employer actually saying: "I am promoting this white nerd over you because your black") or you need statistically evidence. Not suprisingly, direct evidence is rarely available. Few employers are dumb enough to make their discrimination obvious through outright statements. The other way to prove discrimination is with statistical evidence. The promotion of Bill Gates over someone else does NOT establish discrimination. One person cannot provide the basis for a discrimination case relying on statistics. Such a case would be thrown out during summary judgment without even being presented to the factfinder and the lawyer or individual who filed it would likely face sanctions for filing a frivilous lawsuit.

So basically, what I am trying to say, is that you are "second-rate" when it comes to thinking. Actually, "second-rate" may be an overly kind assessment. "Second-rate" is not bad, since it is only one step below "first-rate." Not everyone can be "first-rate" but perhaps most people can at least be "second-rate."

Any reasonably careful and intelligent person would think it through before publishing a comment that is so obviously wrong. Either you are ignorant of the law or you don't understand statistics.

I think it is thus clearly established that you are either (1) reckless/careless, (2) unintelligent or (3) both reckless/careless and unintelligent.

Are we supposed to take your assessment of the quality of the Harvard professors you mention seriously when you exhibit such qualities?

Vorn writes:

Thomson:

You write:
"Much of Harvard University’s highly esteemed reputation is solely the result of not so subtle threats. Either one sluts for the leftist intellectual establishment---or they will be severely harmed."

Yet more proof that you are either reckless or unintelligent. So, if you aren't a leftist, you will be "severely harmed" by Harvard? Well, lets see, in the last couple of years, Harvard Law School has given out highly coveted tenured positions to conservative law scholars, including John Manning and Jack Goldsmith, both conservative veterans of the Reagan administration. Getting tenure at Harvard Law School is a really big deal, usually only a very small number of individuals are so honored.

Conservatives on the Harvard Law School faculty include John Manning, Jack Goldsmith, Charles Fried, Einer Elhauge, Bill Stuntz, Mary Ann Glendon, Kip Viscusi and a few others. This does not include the visiting faculty with conservative leanings who have been considered for tenure. Nor does it include faculty who have been offered but have rejected tenured positions.

The faculty thus far mentioned are only those who would be considered on the right side of the political spectrum. It does not include the many moderates who also could not be said to "slut" for the "leftist intellectual establishment."

It also does not include those with leftist tendencies, who, however, are critical thinkers that would not "slut" for the "leftist intellectual establishment" or any other for that matter, but rather have a sincere commitment to the truth.

You say that Harvard would "severely harm" those who do not "slut" themselves to leftwing ideology. But surely, the adjective "severely" includes much more harm than merely failing to hire to the faculty of one of the world's most prestigious universities. But as has been shown, not only does Harvard not "severely harm" those who do not expouse a doctrinaire leftist ideology, it actually provides them with highly coveted tenure track positions.

In conclusion, your appear to be an ignorant person who does not even engage in the most basic fact-checking before making extreme assertions, and perhaps you are too unintelligent to understand the need for such fact-checking.

As for me, I am questioning why I even have wasted time responding to your ignorant post. That probably was not a fully rational act on my part. Perhaps it is the vague hope that you are not totally hopeless and have the potential to realize that more care is needed before making extreme assessments. Nonetheless, I think the probability of that occuring is low and that this is probably just some sort of ex post rationalization on my part.

David Thomson writes:

“Yet you think you have the ability to put down Steven Breyer, a formerly a law professor at Harvard Law School.”

Oh yes, I most certainly do. The second rate Steven Breyer argues that we should not be constrained by the actual text of the Constitution. We should also be open to other documents available throughout the world. Such reasoning is simply a foolish justification to permit a judge to make laws and not interpret them. The voters will no longer determine what they desire via the ballot box. An arrogant imperial judiciary will do it for them. Roe vs. Wade is perhaps a quintessential example of such tyranny. If you can’t grasp this fact---then you are someone who likely places his snobbish wet finger in the air to see which way the winds blows. I also suspect that you voted for John Kerry in the last election. Red state values are based predominantly on the ability to think and follow a logical argument. Many blue staters are worried that their questionably obtained degrees will no longer be of value. This is the subconscious reason why they are so hostile towards the Bush administration.

David Thomson writes:

“But as has been shown, not only does Harvard not "severely harm" those who do not expouse a doctrinaire leftist ideology, it actually provides them with highly coveted tenure track positions.”

Why do you persist in making a fool out of yourself? Larry Summer’s fairly recent groveling before Harvard’s leftist female community is solid evidence that the university is something of an intellectual whore house. This scandal alone clearly shows the fear and trembling pervading the overrated institution.

David Thomson writes:

“To prove discrimination, you either need direct evidence of discrimination (something like an employer actually saying: "I am promoting this white nerd over you because your black") or you need statistically evidence.”

You are dealing with abstractions and not reality. Many companies are intimidated by the remote possibility of a financially devastating law suit. Merely filing the preliminary papers may destroy their profit for the year. This is why disgusting groups such as the ACLU are so diabolically effective. Few business entities possess the financial resources to fight back. They are inclined to adopt “play it safe” policies.

Vorn writes:

Thomson:

Okay, first of all, I am not going to get into questions of Constitutional interpretation with you. Why? Because I do not think your qualified on an intellectual level. Let's just say for starters that there are these two things, incompleteness and ambiguities, that make Constitutional interpretation very difficult. Textualists have their own bias. Not only that, textualism, like any other theory of interpretation, needs to be justified by a normative theory.

You are completely wrong about who I voted for in the last election. I voted for Bush. Just because I have demonstrated conclusively that you are an ignorant person who makes extreme assessments with inadequate evidence does not reveal my political preferences. That you think it does is yet more evidence that you are lacking judgment and possibly intelligence. My first loyalty is to the truth - a reasonably intelligent person would realize that does not imply that I am a Democrat.

I was not happy with the Larry Summer's incident. Even if I feel that President Summer's did not have adequate evidence to make the suggestions he made, I agree completely with the idea of performing research to try to answer the interesting questions he raised.

That some faculty members may have overreacted to a particular incident does not establish your assertion that if you are not a "slut" to the "leftist establishment" that Harvard will "severely harm" you. I have already proved you wrong conclusively on this score - you either lack the intelligence or the judgment to admit it. Or do you want to dispute the conservative credentials of the law faculty I mentioned?

When you are wrong, you should just admit it and move on. Instead, you try to shift the subject by mentioning the Summer's incident. That is not intellectually honest. You seem to have something against Harvard; of course, this might have something to do with the fact that someone of your intellectual caliber would never be admitted.

Finally, you want to argue about the "reality" of discrimination law? Okay, the reality is, if you came into court with a case of Bill Gates being promoted, your case would be thrown out on summary judgment, the defendant would be awarded attorney's fees, and the lawyer who brought the case would likely face sanction for bringing a frivilous lawsuit. Tell, the lawyer who faces such sanctions that those sanctions are mere "abstractions" and not "reality." I am sure they will be comforted by your genius.

Oh wait, I see now, businesses are irrationally afraid of lawsuits, no matter how frivilous. You write: "Many companies are intimidated by the remote possibility of a financially devastating law suit. Merely filing the preliminary papers may destroy their profit for the year."

So, merely filing papers destroys profit for a whole year. Interesting theory. Maybe you should come into touch with reality. Filing papers is not a difficult thing to do; if this is true, every business in America would have already been driven out of business. That they haven't is proof that the consequences of a lawsuit, especially a frivilous lawsuit, are not as dire as you assert. Again, obviously with inadequate evidence or undertanding of how our legal system works.

In fact, businesses will react, for the most part, rationally in response to litigation. If they don't react rationlaly, their competitors will. A rational company will not settle what they view as completely frivilous lawsuits. Why? Because this would merely encourage more frivilous lawsuits. After all, a frivilous lawsuit is not hard to file; one with merit is considerably more difficult.

What a business will do in response to a completely frivilous lawsuit is move for dismissal for failure to state a claim or move for summary judgment, depending on the circumstances. They will also move for attorney's fees and likely the judge will sanction the other side.

You have a really distorted view of our legal system. Which is not suprising, given your tendency to make extreme judgments with inadequate information. Making such judgments is no virtue.

David Thomson writes:

“Not only that, textualism, like any other theory of interpretation, needs to be justified by a normative theory.”

Nonsense. Stephen Breyer’s thesis is a justification for judicial tyranny. A judge is to legislate from the bench. This is how foolish decisions such as Roe vs. Wade become the law of the land. Breuer is simply an arrogant elitist who believes he knows best. The will of the voter is to be disregarded.

“That some faculty members may have overreacted to a particular incident does not establish your assertion that if you are not a "slut" to the "leftist establishment"”

You are truly embarrassing yourself. The Larry summer’s incident is overwhelming proof of Harvard University’s intellectual sluttiness. Political correctness dominate the halls of this vastly overrated school.

“Finally, you want to argue about the "reality" of discrimination law?”

I also should mention that companies are also fearful of bad publicity. Race hustlers like Jesse Jackson are thus able to intimidate them into kowtowing to leftist ideology. This results in incompetent blacks and other minorities being promoted over more talented white men. You are too hung up on legal abstractions. It might behoove you to talk to people in the real world. Theory is one thing. The real world is often an entirely different.

Vorn writes:

Thomson:

I am sure you know so much about the real world. Like how to make extreme judgments without adequate information. I am sure that skill serves you well in the "real world" when you engage in impulse buying or make other poor decisions.

So, you are saying that textualism doesn't require a normative justification? That this point is "nonsense." I wonder if you even know what the term "normative" means. Because though you say it is nonsense, you do put forth a normative criteria yourself when criticizing Breyer, the normative criteria in this case being the will of the voter. Hmm... could this again confirm the pattern that we see with you. You criticize something and call it nonsense, but then demonstrate your own ignorance of that which you criticize. Ask ANY textualist who is actually educated and thoughtful whether textualism need be justified by a normative theory, and they will answer yes. Ask Justice Scalia -- he will agree that textualism, the theory of interpretation to which he subscribes, needs to be justified by a normative theory. In fact, Justice Scalia is so convinced that textualism needs to be justified by a normative theory, that he has written an entire book about it. Unlike you, Justice Scalia is both very intelligent and very thoughtful. But you know better than Justice Scalia, don't you...

This is precisely why you should gather information and contemplate it carefully before making judgments.

Second, you are in no position to make any judgment concerning whether or not Harvard University is overrated. You have obviously never attended. I am not suprised that you think your qualified to make an assessment, because, as you have shown, you are only too happy to come to extreme judgments based on inadequate information. Notice how you conveniently ignore and fail to even acknowledge, much less refute information that undermines your extreme conclusions. For example the hiring of conservative faculty members.

Oh, and then you end with your sob story
about those "incompetent blacks" taking the positions of "talented white men." Well, let me tell you something. If you have ever been passed up for a promotion, there probably is a very good reason for that. And it has nothing to do with affirmative action.

What is amazing is that you have neither (1) admitted to and corrected the numerous errors you have made or (2) thought about the methodology (or lack of a methodology) that leads you to those errors over and over again. In this case, primarily your tendency to make judgments based on inadequate information nor to address information that goes counter to whatever judgment that you have decided to adopt with inadequate information.

You keep on constrasting the "real world" and theory. This is obviously a defense mechanism. Having had your ignorance of the legal system pointed out, you dismiss it as "theoretical" or too "abstract" even when it is concrete and specific. Fine, you can insist that how the legal system works in the real world is theoretical if you must. This, conveniently, allows you to maintain your inadequately informed judgments. I know that cognitive dissonance can be uncomfortable, but the proper response is to adjust your views accordingly rather than respond with irrational defense mechanisms that merely allow flawed judgments to survive.

As Byran Caplan might point out, perhaps your irrationality is best explained by the fact that holding incorrect views has no cost. Your views on these issues have close to a zero probability of affecting the real world. I think you might be a good anecdote for his new book on voter irrationality.

I am sure your tendency to make inadequately informed judgments does not serve you in the "real world" either. Why? Because in the real world, when time permits, one should make informed and careful judgments, and revise one's views based on additional data. When time does not admit for more careful thought, one should realize the limits of the judgments that are necessarily made in less time. You may not realize it, but making informed judgments and revising those judgments that have been made with less than adequate information or are otherwise mistaken serve one well both in theory and practice. You are like a dinosaur. Inflexible and lacking the ability to adapt to changing information and circumstances.

There are two words to describe people like you. Those words are: willfully ignorant. Ignorant because you are not informed of the relevant facts upon which your judgments should be based. Willful because you maintain your ignorance when this is pointed out to you. You should be embarassed, but frankly, I question whether you have the ability to realize it. And that is just sad.

I will let you have the last word on this.

rakehell writes:

"In addition, as economic change accelerates and people have to change careers more often, credentialism will be too large a source of friction."

I've been hearing this bit about how we all have to change careers for the last twenty years now. I think it's nonsense. Top people don't change their careers; that's only happening for people lower down the food chain. This is yet another argument for getting the best credentials you can, so that you can hopefully be immune from having to change your career, or so that if you do have to change your career, you can indicate that you are a high ability person.

PJens writes:

Ok, getting back to subject of "credentials"... This may be somewhat of a tangent. When I first met my curent veternarian (I am a farmer) I called him "Doctor B-----". He immediately told me to call him Gene. Then he taught me that anyone who uses, or insists upon being called; "Doctor", or puts letters behind their name every time they write it, most likely has a self confidence problem. I note Mr. Kling and Mr. Caplan have no letters behind their listed names. I assume they have earned college degrees, but personally do not care what their edication is. They are excellent thinkers and writers. They are teachers to all of us. That is credential enough for me.

The cream rises to the top, college graduate or not.

Vorn writes:

rakehell:

"I've been hearing this bit about how we all have to change careers for the last twenty years now. I think it's nonsense. Top people don't change their careers; that's only happening for people lower down the food chain."

Well, I can't speak about every industry. I do know that among lawyers, it is more and more common for even those at the top law firms to change careers at some point. It definitely is not an only at the bottom of the food chain issue.

PJens:

You write:
"The cream rises to the top, college graduate or not."

I think that those who are talented have a higher probability of rising up from a socio-economic perspective. However, I do not think that probability is 100% -- environment and institutional support matter quite a bit more than this statement would suggest.

rakehell writes:

Vorn:

"Well, I can't speak about every industry. I do know that among lawyers, it is more and more common for even those at the top law firms to change careers at some point. It definitely is not an only at the bottom of the food chain issue."

Actually I was thinking of lawyers when I made that comment. They seem to have a very narrow track, and one friend commented that to change specialities (he did structured finance), would basically mean starting from scratch in terms of salary and experience. Of course we could be differing on semantics. By "changing careers" I didn't mean "changing subfields." I do know of a rainmaker type who has gone from position to position, but he had blue chip credentials and high level connections that probably made him valuable everywhere. Interestingly, he even went back to school for an LLM. So maybe things are changing.

I find the rhetoric about "career change" to be a bit pollyannaish. So many job listings for senior positions want you to have 15 to 20 years of experience in a fairly circumscribed area. I can only think that a subfield change as being a fairly heavy blow in terms of salary. I have the feeling that the career change rhetoric is really a sop to people. "Don't worry about us firing you, it's happening to everyone. Since you're white collar, you're not likely to unionize, might as well get used to the uncertainty and even think of it as an opportunity!"

Andrew Lasey writes:

Nice post, I enjoyed it very much. I must say that I think you over shoot a bit when you say "was evidently uncomfortable around people with more talent than credentials."

Maybe he was unsure of his ability to judge talent and wanted credentials as a fallback, maybe he felt credentials would be useful for his organization down the road, I don't know.

But saying he was uncomfortable, well, it doesn't follow from the evidence we have in the post. It isn't evident. Maybe you knew the guy and can substaintiate the claim, but without substance it sounds like petty psychological projection.

Really enjoy the blog, keep up the good work.

Thanks

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top