Bryan Caplan  

Frank on Phony Credentials

"Rationally Inactive"... Cartoon Introduction to Cli...
Thomas Frank's essay on phony credentials is engaging throughout.  Lead-in:
Americans have figured out that universities exist in order to man the gates of social class, and we pay our princely tuition rates in order to obtain just one thing: the degree, the golden ticket, the capital-C Credential...

The question that naturally follows is: Given the rigged, rotten nature of the higher-ed game, why would self-interested actors continue to play by the rules? The answer, to a surprising extent, is that they don't.
Earlier this year, the CEO of Yahoo! quit when it was discovered that his degree in computer science was bogus. In 2006, the CEO of RadioShack stepped down amid a similar scandal--he had exaggerated his accomplishments at a California Bible college. And in 2002, the CEO of Bausch + Lomb admitted that the MBA attributed to him in a corporate press release was nonexistent. (The company's share price plummeted on the dreadful news.)

Then there are examples from government, like the high-ranking former official in the Department of Homeland Security who loved to make her underlings address her as "Doctor," in recognition of the advanced degree she had acquired from a prominent diploma mill. Her exposure led to a 2004 study by the General Accounting Office that scoured federal agencies for the alumni of just three diploma mills--three out of the hundreds of unaccredited Web-based enterprises that will issue you a degree in recognition of what they call "life experience." The GAO caught 463 offenders, more than half of them in the Defense Department.

One might assume that academia is practiced at sniffing out counterfeit degrees. But if anything, prestigious universities seem even more prone to dupery than other institutions. In April, the vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education was forced out after it was revealed that he had never earned the Ph.D. listed on his résumé. Last year, two top officials at Bishop State Community College in Alabama also turned out to have dubious doctorates. In 2010, a senior vice president at Texas A&M lost his job for faking both a master's and a doctorate. (He also garnished his CV with a fiction about having been a Navy SEAL.) And in what may be the most satisfying irony to come our way in many years, the Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-- the very person responsible for assessing academic credentials and, in fact, the author of a book of advice for college-bound students--confessed in 2007 that each of her advanced degrees was strictly imaginary.

Somewhere near the conclusion of The Case Against Education, I plan to place a section called "Doubts About Signaling."  One of my chief doubts: "If employers value educational signals so much, why are they so willing to believe whatever candidates claim about their signals?"  My least bad answer is that while telling an isolated lie comes easily to human beings, most human beings are bad at living a lie.  If you fabricate credentials to get a job, doctoring your resume is the easy part.  The challenge: You have to construct an alternate life history, and carefully segregate everyone you're lying to from everyone who knows better for the rest of your career.  In short, you need the rare skills of a spy.

Not satisfied?  The standard human capital story suffers an analogous doubt: "If employers value academic skills so much, why are they so willing to believe whatever candidates tell them about their skills?"  The world of work is weird, so no scrupulously mundane story is going to fit the facts.

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Dan Carroll writes:

The individuals who are successful at lying also excel at other skills, namely persuasion. One could also hypothesize that the value of the degree is far less than meets the eye - a socially convenient admission ticket. Finally, employers are notoriously bad at interviewing and hiring, while at the same time convinced that they know what they are doing. The typical American interview process underperforms throwing darts at a wall of resumes. For someone who has an understanding of the psychology of non-verbal communication (most certainly not me), manipulating the process is usually fairly easy.

J writes:

I'd just comment that people using phony credentials seem relatively rare. If one ignores the 463 degrees from diploma mills in government agencies (how many tens of thousands employees are there), there don't seem to be that many instances. The people with degrees from diploma mills aren't lying in the most conventional sense.

Also, three CEOs from fortune 500 companies in the last decade isn't exactly many. I'd estimate that is about 3 of 1500. Perhaps it is more widespread, but dates on resumes would make it harder to fake and fit in. Also, employers likely rely on previous employers to vet earlier career details (that might get faked later). If lying about degrees is relatively rare, it might be completely rational to not check, especially the higher up someone has climbed whether the corporate or academic later.

How many of the readers of Bryan's blog have checked with his alma mater to determine that he was in fact issued a diploma? Or better yet, how many of the journals he submits to have checked to make sure he got his diploma? I assume us and the journals, assume GMU checked it out before making him a professor, and I sincerely doubt Mr. Caplan will be asked for proof of his PhD for the rest of his career.

Zc writes:

"How many of the readers of Bryan's blog have checked with his alma mater to determine that he was in fact issued a diploma?"

Hmmm...drawing such a poor comparison certainly doesn't bolster your argument. I read this blog because it's interesting; I couldn't care less what the poster's credentials are. They could all be avatars created in the mind of a bored teenager, as long as the posts are interesting, I'll keep coming back. Obviously that's a bit different than an employer paying someone who lies about their credentials.

What's really interesting is figuring out when these various people started using the fake credential -- was it necessary to fulfill criteria to get a job, or was it an unnecessary ego-boosting resume polishing after the fact?

Bostonian writes:

Is there data on how often human resources departments verify academic credentials before a job offer is made?

It's my impression that employers of high school graduates almost never ask about the courses taken or the GPA. Students only get credit for doing well in high school, as opposed to just graduating, by going to a selective college. If high school seniors with SAT scores of 2100 and GPAs of 3.9 could get different jobs from high school seniors with SAT scores of 1200 and GPAs of 2.0, there would be less demand for the college degree.

There should be electronic high school transcripts that employers can easily obtain with the permission of job applicants. I don't think this is true at present.

JKB writes:

So less signaling or human capital and more barrier to entry.

Over my career, I signed on quite a few licensed mariners. The most important threshold was the license (documents for crew) which was needed to meet regulatory requirements. In later years, the unofficial tend was toward licensed and graduate of a maritime academy. While a license didn't necessarily indicate competence, the license and degree were even more hit or miss. All the while, those with the skills were unemployable because they didn't have the license and it became harder to get the license without going through an academy (skills required a lot of time and the layers of certification took money and time away from sailing where the sea time required to test was earned). From what I understand, the stringency of the testing and sea time varied depending on the number of bodies the industry needed.

James writes:

In the early days of Facebook, you had to prove you belonged to a college network by providing your University email address. Why not do the same on job applications? Universities can be strict handing out their email addresses. You could even add a certifying feature that imprints your years of attendance, GPA, Major, and classes taken much like a signature block.

EclectEcon writes:

Speaking of phony credentials, how many people actually check out the publications listed on the curriculum vitae academics?

  • I know of several cases in which people were fired when it was finally discovered that some or all of the publications they had listed, didn't exist.

  • And what about vanity publications in online journals that are allegedly peer-reviewed. These things count at many schools that merely count up the publications without regard to the quality or reputations of the journals. [e.g., I'm retired so I don't care ;-), but I have an article on Economics and Culture coming out in the International Review of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences --- sounds like a good fit, but the so-called peer review was sketchy at best.]

Daublin writes:

Why do you say that employers are "willing to believe whatever candidates tell them about their skills?"?

That does not match my experience. The HR department will just look at your resume, but a standard policy for interviewing for a technical job is to ask the candidate to work through problems similar to what they will be doing on the job.

Once hired, employees are regularly reviewed, and that review includes peer assessment of what everyone is capable of doing.

Granted, these are *technical* jobs, where you actually do something measurable. It's rather different in academia, where the university wants professors that are well-regarded and will pull in funding.

LD Bottorff writes:

When applying for adjunct positions at two local colleges, the only way my degrees were accepted was via a copy of my transcript sent directly from the universities that I attended. I hope this is standard now, but it wasn't always. In my final semester of my Master's program, we had one teacher who was simply horrible. After enough students complained, the teacher was asked to provide his credentials. That was the last we saw of him.

Floccina writes:

Interestingly in the cases that I am familiar with they are fired for lying rather than for ineptitude.

2 more cases George O'Leary (football coach). Waylon Clifton (police chief).

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