Credentialism Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

As technology- and information-based jobs increase in the Twenty-first century, there is a concomitant increase in the requirement for credentials. In some cases, this is justified. In others, it is not. Credentialism is the requirement for educational credentials for their own sake as a prerequisite for employment or for conferring social status rather than an objective emphasis on the qualifications, skills, or abilities of the person. The mere requirement for credentials for a job is not in and of itself credentialism. If the education leading to the credential is a bona fide requirement of the job and the education is used on the job, the requirement for the credential is justified. However, if the education is unrelated and required in order to exclude certain classes of people from the applicant pool, then the requirement is not valid and credentialism exists. Both the conflict and functionalist sociological perspectives speak to this issue.

Keywords Conflict Perspective; Credentialism; Demographic Data; Education; Functionalism; Grade Inflation; Human Rights Movement; Job Analysis; Job Description; Society



Recently, a television show contained a minor plot line that involved a man who had taken the opportunity to audit all the coursework necessary to become a physician while he had worked in the administrative offices of a medical school. He had not, however, done the concomitant clinical work nor had he ever received his medical diploma. Nonetheless, he had extensive book knowledge and considerable diagnostic skills, so he applied for a job as a medical resident in diagnostics at a teaching hospital. This being television, of course, he made important contributions to complex diagnoses but, in the end, was found out. He was offered a non-clinical job that would allow him to unofficially participate in diagnosing difficult cases. He complained that he had all the knowledge necessary to be a physician, but just did not have the degree and was being unfairly penalized.

In a real world situation, there was once a young man who had been successfully working as a programmer for a large firm for several years. His work had been outstanding and he had received raises and honors based on the quality of his performance. However, when he came up for a promotion, his employers discovered that he had never earned a college degree. Suddenly, the man was no longer viewed as an asset to the company - despite his outstanding performance on the job - and was in danger of being terminated because of his lack of a degree. He eventually enrolled in a program designed to help people currently in the work force quickly obtain degrees, and within a short time earned not only a bachelor's degree, but a doctorate as well. He voluntarily severed his relationship with the organization that had required him to earn the degree once he received it.

On another occasion, a woman wanted to make a career shift from what she was doing to become a data miner. Although she did not have the necessary education and concomitant piece of paper to say that she was capable of data mining, she had done work in this area in her previous job and had picked up some of the skill set. However, prospective employers were unwilling to consider her for a position involving data mining because she did not have the paperwork to back up her real world experience. She was unable to make the career switch without going back to school.

Finally, an individual wanted to become a consultant and inquired what the process was to become certified by a consulting organization. Not only did the organization not certify consultants (except by reputation for those employed), there are no widely accepted certification standards for consultants in his desired field (except for education and experience). As a result, any certification the person received would be essentially meaningless. Further, the person could not point to any education or experience that would be required for either certification or to be an effective consultant.

All these accounts are examples of what appears to be credentialism from the principal actor's point of view. Credentialism is a negative term used to describe the requirement of educational credentials for their own sake as a prerequisite for employment or for conferring social status in place of an objective emphasis on the qualifications, skills, or abilities of the person. In the first case, the fictional character had obtained the book knowledge necessary to solve medical mysteries. However, he did not have the concomitant clinical experience either in school or in the hospital to make him a physician. In this case, the lack of the required degree was an appropriate block to him presenting himself as a medical professional, no matter how great his book knowledge. Far from being credentialism, this is a story of an educational requirement being in place for a good reason.

The second example, however, is an obvious example of credentialism. The man not only had the skills to do the job, but had been recognized and honored for doing it outstandingly for quite some time. On the other hand, the case of the woman who wished to become a data miner may or may not have been a case of credentialism. She was widely read and had studied data mining techniques and theory on her own. She also had a finely honed and logical mind that made her an excellent candidate for a data mining position. In addition, she already was doing data mining and had a history of successful experience as a data miner. It appeared that all she lacked was the degree or certificate to say that this was true. If this is the case, the job requirements of the potential employers for a related college degree were credentialism that denied her the opportunity to work at a job she loved. However, if the college course work would have given her job skills that she did not have but were essential to the job, this was not an example of credentialism. In the last example, the applicant's focus on certification resulting from a short-term course rather than the rigorous educational and apprenticeship necessary to be a good consultant showed not the credentialism of potential employers, but the credentialism - and lack of understanding of the job - of the applicant.


Although it is safe to say that credentialism exists, credentials are often in place for a reason. Few people would want a physician who had no practical experience and had gained all his/her knowledge of medicine from a book. On the other hand, just because someone holds a credential does not mean that the person is qualified for the job. Sometimes, employers make an educational credential (e.g., diploma, degree) a prerequisite for a job as a shortcut to defining the knowledge, skills, and abilities that a job applicant needs to be able to perform well. However, job descriptions need to be backed up with job-related requirements based on what the incumbent actually does in the job as determined by a thorough job analysis. Too often, this short cut amounts to credentialism by requiring a degree or other academic credential that is not needed. Further, sometimes people with the appropriate academic credentials are, in fact, not qualified for the job. This can be due to variations between the curricula of different schools for different degree programs or it can be a result of grade inflation. This is a situation that occurs when an excessive number of high grades are given to students or average students are given above average grades. Grade inflation effectively lowers the value of the top grades earned by higher achieving students. In such situations, academic credentials are no substitute for bona fide expertise in a job.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists take an even more cynical view of credentialism. In the conflict framework, credentialism is viewed as a tool that is used to inhibit disadvantaged or lower classes from attaining better paying jobs because they have been unable to attain a required level of education whether or not that person has the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to do the job. Therefore, according to conflict theory, credentialism allows employers and other individuals and groups higher in the social order to legally discriminate against lower classes and disadvantaged individuals on the basis of credentialism that is not directly related to a job or other position of higher social status.

Although the term credentialism is typically used pejoratively, the requirement for credentials is not necessarily a bad thing. The concern over credentialism arises out of the fact that an increasing number of employers are requiring postsecondary credentials. Although in some cases the need for a degree is necessary (e.g., physicians and many other professional positions), in other cases the requirement seems unrelated to the job (e.g., requirement for any degree - including a liberal arts degree - for an entry-level technical position where one will be taught all necessary skills on the job). Many people have questioned whether or not college degrees and other credentials (e.g., vocational certificates) actually provide individuals with the skills they need to do a job. In the cases of some professions (such as the consulting example above), a piece of paper from a certifying agency does little more than increase the profits of the agency and does nothing for increasing the skill...

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