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.