Rise of Credentialism

The rise of credentialism is an onerous and angry philosophy of separation forced upon the “have nots” by the “already haves.” That phony-on-the-surface and irresistible-in-the-depths separation of people by paper is an ominous cloud along the horizon of our educated humanity because this is a separation not by talent or ability or deeds but by theory and strategy and if you doubt it there is a growing diploma trail to prove my point. I have an MFA degree from Columbia University.

An MFA means “Master of Fine Arts.” An MFA differs from an MA degree in two ways. The first is the degree moves beyond theory and into the technical aspects of the art: I can not only describe how colors affect a dramatic presentation I can design and implement them as well. Second, an MFA degree, because of the technical aspect, is considered a “terminal” degree in that, like a PhD, you have reached the end of the road in your trip for knowledge and because you have touched that terminal end you are certified by the system of academe that you are worthy of being hired on a full line tenure track.

At least that’s the way it is supposed to work in theory. In the last five years there has been a sea change in academe as the basic requirements for applying for a tenure track position at a major research university have shifted. Most job announcements used to say “MFA or PhD preferred.”

Three years ago the job descriptions changed to “PhD preferred” and now, in the last couple of years, it has become “PhD required.” Ten years ago an MFA could place you in an important job — I have a good and talented friend who has an MFA and he is now a powerful Dean at Southern Methodist University. He would not be able to work his way into that position today with a freshly minted MFA. A year ago I applied for a tenure track teaching job where I had been serving as a member of the adjunct faculty for several years. The invitation to apply came from my Chair who thought I would be a perfect fit for the department.

I did not even make it to the level of being interviewed because word came down from the Dean that no candidates would be interviewed unless they first had a PhD even though that was not stated in the published job description. There are always exceptions to the “PhD only” rule. If you are internationally famous, or if you are a star, or if you have a slew of published books, you can leapfrog academic credentialism because you have “credentialized” yourself in the marketplace not of ideas, but of money.

So what changed in five years where the terminal MFA degree becomes worthless and the PhD becomes the standard by which all candidates are judged as their first task of hoop jumping? The answer is credentialism. As more and more women and other minorities challenge the ivory tower power base with higher base degrees, the bar of perceived excellence must be set higher and higher in order to keep the self-proclaimed majority elite in power and that is accomplished by requiring more and more layers of bullsh*t to protect a process that is already overrun by pomposity and downward-nose-looking.

An MD psychiatrist friend of mine who worked at Rikers Island as a staff therapist for 30 years made this insightful connection 10 years ago: She claimed since the quality of student was getting worse, the innate power of the degree awarded was cheapened in the following manner: The BA became the high school diploma. The MA became a BA. The PhD became the MFA. She went on to argue once you hit the MD or PhD ceiling the forced credentialism didn’t stop there.

The system demands more to keep out those it wishes to not welcome. You have to get other certifications and join other groups and the new requirements are all created by those in power — usually older White men — who want to preserve their domain by guaranteeing only those like them will rise to their level where the credentialism requirements are invented.

We are already tipping into the ridiculous with this “more is less” theory of credentialism and the people it hurts most are those who are trying to get out by moving up the education ladder to success. Even nurses are now required to have a PhD if they want to get the top money and power in a hospital. I counsel my students to save their loan money for their graduate work because if they want to get a good job a BA doesn’t cut it anymore.

They now need to get at least an MA and they would need a PhD if they want to teach at a good university. Too many students go to a public school their freshman year and then transfer to a private university for the remaining years because they falsely believe the name of the university on their undergraduate diploma matters.

By the time they graduate with a Bachelor’s degree, they are tapped out of the student loan system because they have already borrowed the maximum and, in the ongoing opaque effort to protect those in power, the ability to have higher loans to match the rising cost of education have not been forthcoming. Even grants and other financial aid programs have been cut to keep down those who pay their own way, but who desire to have a better life, via an advanced degree. My advice today remains this: If you are paying your own way in the American system of university education, get a cheap BA.

Nobody cares where you received your undergraduate degree. Only the advanced degree matters. Spend your big loan money on your graduate degree because once you start down the advanced degree road you will never stop paying and the price you pay is never only counted in dollars. You will continually pay with your spirit, your psyche and your reservoir of goodwill.

35 comments

  • Okay you said it all and said it well. I’m quitting to start a university with you.

  • I’m with you, AdunctX! :)
    We can bring values and ideas and good teaching back to our own campus and the only thing that will matter is the desire to teach and not the sort of tassel you have hanging off your mortar board.

  • David, an elegant and insightful argument.
    Academia does create game scenarios where stated and unstated rules govern behavior and “credentialism” is one of them. Like the boy scouts and the military, ranks and ribbons are given as rewards to successful game play by those in power. The point is to include, to exclude and to reward for reasons other than merit.
    But “credentialism” is not the only game, sad to say. Here are a couple of other examples. “Chumped” is another. The point of being “chumped” is to pass along an undesirable task to an unwitting junior member of the group. Implied reward is the bait, and only after the person chumped realizes that the task was worse than anticipated and that no reward is coming, the game is done.
    “While we all know and love(WWKL)” is another game. The point of WWKL is to not use the criteria of obvious merit to reward someone for a task. After successfully completing a task, the group feels justified in providing a reward for the subject of WWKL. The person who sabotages the reward starts the game, by saying in private to another person in power, “while we all know and love A, he/she should not get the reward because (clears throat) this is what really happened.” The information, generally false, gets passed around in confidence and A ends up not getting the reward based on merit.
    How to trump gamesmanship in academia? Transparency, hard work, and keeping a keen eye on what is happening. You also look to be in a community that is more functional than dysfunctional. There are positive games as well, such as “being set up to succeed” and the game I play right now which is “wise old sage.” ;)

  • Fascinating entry. I am soon to be a PhD and all I can think of these days is how to enhance that PhD degree with something else before I finish up – sad to me because I’m tired. There is another game that I’m learning about (I’m not from the US originally so some of this is new to me), but it seems alumni connections may one day (if it hasn’t yet) trump where you got your degree from (unless it’s the top 10 really ivy league stuff). There are companies where most of the hirees went to a certain university (where the owner went). I’m in the South, so I’m not sure if it’s a southern thing or not.

  • Hi tanya!
    Good luck with your PhD!
    My advice is to get everything you have written published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. Get books published. Having a solid publication record means a lot to universities because it shows others think a lot of your mind and that immediately validates you in their collective think.
    You’re right the university game is who you know… but that’s true of lots of places not just academe. Many of the top-notch tenure track research positions you see advertised are, in my experience, already “filled” in the minds of those seeking to hire on the position and your participation is only needed for the on-the-record paper trail you will leave behind as a “viable” candidate brought in for interviewing.
    By the time the advertisement hits publication you’re usually already two months behind the hiring curve. Sure, there are exceptions, but the advertisement is more a Federal Equal Opportunity requirement than an honest, open, call for the best possible person for the position.

  • This is good stuff and I have to admit, for me at least, I couldn’t care less. I’m so sorry for people that have to jump through all the hoops though. Sometimes I wish I had stayed soley with the Mom degree with a PhD in that (“piled higher and deeper,” I hear it’s called). For everything I’ve done in my life, it’s the thing I’ve done the best and am most proud of.
    Except for maybe Toast Police. And my credential for that is my bullet in my pocket. Thanks again for a thoughtful and informatative post. You always give good advice too, David. I hope anyone who needs it is listening.

  • Thanks for the comment, Paula!
    I agree today you’re either all the way to the PhD or you’re all out. There’s no in-between any longer.
    The best and most independent path to take is to go for publication on your own terms as an author. With several books under your belt you are in a much better “star” position in the eyes of a university to get hired and get what you want.
    Every university needs “stars” to attract attention and students and creating that shine on your own will save you from the morose and groaning politics of the terminal ivory tower.

  • I dropped out of grad school after four courses toward a MA in English. It’s something I don’t really regret because at the time, I really needed to do so – personal and emotional problems overwhelmed me.
    Even then I knew that getting a PhD would be the only way I could hope for a decent teaching job, and I just didn’t have the endurance to stick it out. I wanted to do my own writing – not reading all this research about someone’s interpretation about what someone else wrote.
    I wouldn’t mind earning a MFA in creative writing just for me – just to have the chance to intensely work on the writing craft. But I know that’s something I can do right here at home. I can get published one day without it.
    Maybe if I win the lottery one day and don’t have to worry about money! :-)

  • Heya Carla!
    That’s interesting news about your MA in English. An MFA is good for teaching as an adjunct and, in the pecking order it is a bit better than an MA in the university’s eyes because it is a terminal degree but if you want to write for profit you don’t even need a BA to do that! :)
    When I was considering a PhD in the Humanities a long while ago I was warned off it by an internationally respected scholar with tenure who said, “The only PhD people who are getting tenure track Humanities jobs these days are minorities and women. Look in the mirror: White; Male; Midwestern. That’s three strikes and you’re out before you start.”
    I realize that may be a stunning conversation on several levels, but I took the point as a friendly shot over the bow and, over 10 years later, that advice — in many ways — is immensely interesting.

  • Tanya:
    You are right. The game, where connections and alumni input already precommit an “open position” can be called “Good ‘Ol Boys.” There is also a word for it, nepotism, or favortism. Do keep in mind that if you have qualifications and publications in well regarded journals is good as gold– this can trump the game. Remember that in any system, there are people who honestly try to keep the rules fair and above board. So good luck!
    Paula, some of the most intelligent people that I know are stay at home moms, and a credential means nothing when you have to raise a family. It brings up the quote that is up in our Pediatric Wards.
    “When I just got my degree, I had no children and six theories on how to raise them. Now I have six children and no theories.”

  • I definetly understand where you are coming from David. I recently was trying to find a field in which I could exercise my skills in economics, philosophy, leadership studies, and do it in the INTJ way, and I have yet to find any interesting career that doesn’t require at “least” a masters degree (or many years of experience in the field) just to get started.
    I heard of a recent and interesting figure (I know its important to cite but I can’t remember where I read this atm, when I find it i’ll edit my post), the average college student graduates 24,000$ in debt… Considering that the average starting salary for a college graduate is on the decline, the cost of living is on the rise, and the demands on and competition among recent college grads is higher, these are hard times indeed for college grads…
    Be nice to your parents kids!

  • Good advice to Carla, David, about publishing. I have several friends who publish and have no degrees above BA. One who is quite prolific. A writer writes, Carla. So get bizzy! :)

  • I would argue that credentialism has always been part and parcel of most fields. The reason it is rising is probably more to do with the job market. Here in France where I work, academic credentialism is forced by the system. Teachers automatically get different contracts based on their qualifications. Each year, entry to jobs is based on quotas and a “competition” system. If you’re good, but not in the top 100* for a given discipline, you will not get a job. So every year, you retake the same exams hoping to be in the top 100* and fight against others who have just graduated as well as those who missed the cut the year before. This discourages working together due to a fear that your good ideas will be used by others to your detriment.
    You can get work if you miss the cut, as a temporary replacement on on a year’s contract, but your situation is no better the next year. A friend of mine is at her fifth year of trying to qualify. Her performance in exams each year has been good, but just below the cut. With five years experience she is still unable to get a permanent position even though her actual pedagogical skills are good enough – just that on paper, there are others rising who do better in a theoretical exam environment.
    In the corporate world it’s not much better, since snobbery around coming from a good school gets you a much better chances of a job than experience. Many top executives at the company I work for have said that I stand little chance of progressing because I have come from the anglo-saxon system of experience being the best reference, when in France someone straight out of business school with little or no work experience will be considered before my five years relevant experience in my field, in spite of my track record managing teams of several people.
    What beats me is the continual reports of a lack of people in the academic field as opposed to the general opinion within academia that it’s difficult to get ahead. Maybe the places where there is a lack of people are the places nobody is qualified to be, so why doesn’t someone step up to the plate and help people migrate from one subject area to another more easily, without all this qualification snobbery?
    *I say top 100 but that’s an arbitrary figure, obviously.

  • David,
    I could not agree more on this subject, but it is not only academia that has this problem. Look at many other professions and trades that create artificial barriers to entry that keep the supply of “qualified” workers low.
    I have a lot of experience in the field of training and development and even this field has 3 or 4 certifications you can earn. Every association has their own and now even entry level positions require at least one certification. It is crazy, how does an entry level persons get a certification that requires 5 years of work experience?
    I’m not too worried about it myself, because I can get certifed (not certifable) anytime, but now there are so many certifications I don’t know which one I actually need.
    Many people in the field have several alphabets after their name, it is almost embarrassing.
    Kev

  • Thanks, Paula, and don’t worry; I’m bizzy! :-)

  • Jeff — Thanks for the great advice for Tanya. I also don’t mind those games you mentioned in your first post because I understand how they operate. The trick is getting in the door so you can play. :)
    Justin — You make some excellent points. US News and World Report had an article about a UNL grad who still owes $17,000 on his student loans. He is a working journalist. He took out the standard loan package. He’s still paying them down five years later and making little headway into his debt. A good graduate school is a wager that can forge new connections and get you into the “in-crowd” but you really have to balance the cost of getting inside against the price of paying off the bet. The trouble comes when you realize — usually after graduation — that the world doesn’t run on talent or ability. The world runs on luck, whimsy and not just who you know but who you know who likes you. Many people who hire — NOT INTJs — choose the person they like best, not the best person for the job. INTJs were made for university life. Research. Writing can be lonely to the uninitiated. There is limited “forced” interaction into submissive social settings.
    Paula — Thanks for the good advice! I know Carla is an active writer. Her blog is always interesting and meaningful.
    fruey — I appreciate the insight! You are right that credentialism has been around forever. I am in favor of making sure people can hit a high water mark (or a minimum level of ability) to make sure they are capable and testing is the only way to reliably achieve that end. I have trouble, however, when credentialism is used to stratify people socially and economically in a bad way to falsely protect those in power who are threatened by elements they do not understand or like. The Boy Scouts use a merit badge system for advancement and I like that kind of structure because it encourages movement but it does not inherently, as a part of the system structure, discriminate to keep people down. The Boy Scouts are about moving people up no matter who you are or where you live and once you are a Scout the only thing holding you back from advancement is your own free will.
    Kev — You took my major point and ran with it: Credentialism is a not-so-transparent means of pushing away otherwise qualified workers so the pool of power is kept “pure and clean” to reflect those in power.

  • What an impressive repartee here. When I worked in the academic tangle of egos twenty some years ago, I felt that the credentialed ones were an odd and luck-worn bunch who had timing more than integrity, and more banana peels to throw out than intelligence. Nowhere was the sharpening of wits more apparent than among a bunch of really, really smart and angry people who had nothing better to do with their tempers than chafe. I felt it was a sad commentary on their waste of brains to have such a lack of wisdom that working together and supporting one another was not a main option or choice, but a fall-back position.
    I do think that the underpinnings of the affects was a lack of integrity and character, all the more complicated by the ongoing sharpening of wits as weapon instead of wit as builder of a supportive culture of true intellegence and integrity. Alas, these latter qualities are not synonymous with a formal education, but with upbringing and personal influence. Those of us who honor such character and intelligence are charged with the job of upholding it, credentialed or not. Those with credentials and no character uphold their jobs and their ‘new clothes’ are never seen in an integrity, only a nudity of empiricism.

  • Leelee –
    What a fantastic comment and after every WORD I found myself saying “oh, yes, yes, how right you are!”
    You have pinpointed and dissected the ugly underbelly of American Academe and I thank you for sharing your experience and vision here.

  • You make some excellent points but what if I still want to teach on the college level? I have an MFA I’m 40 and find myself constantly running into the academic arrogance we all seem to have experience. I’m an artist who also has a passion to teach; I actually obtained the MFA so that I could some day teach at the college level.

  • I agree your situation is tough. Academic arrogance is a big problem on the university level but types like us were not made to fight it or join it.
    Have you thought about community college teaching? Sometimes those schools are more open to good teaching than to just a history of publication on the PhD line.
    Make yourself a star beyond the college or university and then they will clamor to hire you.
    Other than that — just keep pestering them for work and maybe you’ll strike it lucky — though my experience begs a claim you will never be employed in a full time teaching job with just an MFA and middling outside fame.

  • The degree basically says you were able to follow a course and complete the work. It does not mean you are now somehow “magically smart”. Case in point, I’m attending a Business Management class this semester. I have been paired with three other girls in my group to complete assignments. They are aged 23, 24, and 26. It is one big nightmare. I can’t get them to participate in the discussions necessary to complete the assignments. They are bogged down with an average of four classes this semester, work full-time jobs, and they all have children. The problem I face: I’m doing all of the work and they are receiving the credit.
    However, once they graduate from college, they will not know anymore than they did when they walked through the front door. In effect, it’s almost like cheating.
    I noticed that many jobs are asking for a bachelor’s and then state that a Master’s is preferred. I was told by a recruiter that they ask for the degrees to weed out the many applications they receive. He further stated that if they lose experienced in the process that is a chance they have to take because there are just too many applicants.
    Therefore, I believe that the degree is just another way to weed out the masses. In fact, you are rewarded with opportunities for having higher education. For those that can do it, they are the ones that are fit to survive in our society. My Economics professor said that there are so many people holding degrees in this country that in another ten years, you will have to have a bachelor’s just to get a job at McDonalds.

  • I agree in your example, Tayta, that it is cheating — and that’s why the rise of credentialism is so phony because it sets up false weeding expectations. Those students you helped are your competition in the marketplace and they’ll make it through the first weeding because they have the degree!

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