The Case For Credentialism

Pinocchio Nose Cartoon Kevin Carey, Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, and James Fallows think it terribly unfair that Marilee Jones was forced to resign from her job as admissions director at MIT after it turned out that she had lied about having a college degree.

Now, I’m sympathetic to the argument that, since the initial dishonesty occurred 28 years ago and she has, by all accounts, done a stellar job at MIT since, they should have cut her some slack. Then again, one could argue that she lied by omission every day she showed up for work and didn’t come clean. Further, rewarding dishonesty because one got away with it for a long time doesn’t exactly send a good message. Granted, Veritas is Harvard’s motto, not MIT’s, but it should be every institution of higher education’s objective. (Although, ironically, MIT’s motto is Mens et Manus, or, “Mind and Hand,” which emphasizes “education for practical application.”)

Furthermore, she continued to lie in presenting herself to the outside world, as in this profile which begins, “A scientist by training, she joined the MIT Admissions Office in 1979 to lead the recruitment efforts for women.” This is not an isolated case, as Zachary Seward reports for the Crimson,

Several newspaper profiles of Jones, including those in the New York Times and Boston Globe, have reported that she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry and biology from RPI in Troy, N.Y. The registrar at RPI, Sharon Kunkel, said today that Jones attended the school but did not earn any degrees.” Spokespeople for Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., and Albany Medical, in New York’s capital, both said they had no record of Jones ever attending or receiving a degree from either school.

A biography of Jones at the Web site of the National Association of College Admission Counseling refers to her as “Dr. Marilee Jones, Ph.D.” and says she has biology and chemistry degrees from RPI and Albany Medical. She was scheduled to speak at the association’s annual conference in September.

So she’s a serial liar, not just some kid desperate for a job who fudged her resume a long time ago.

I’ve much less sympathetic to the argument, famously made by Fallows in a 1985 Atlantic piece (“The Case Against Credentialism“) and by all those cited above with regard to the Jones case (well, technically, Douthat merely concurs with “every word” of Yglesias’ piece) that college degrees don’t matter and therefore the lie doesn’t matter.

Carey rightly notes that there are exceptional cases (he cites the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) of individuals with extraordinary intellect who don’t require formal education to make brilliant contributions and that a college degree isn’t, in and of itself, evidence of having learned, only of being taught.

I wonder if in addition to deterring future resume-fudgers, M.I.T. wasn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of employing someone who is living proof that you don’t need a university degree to be really good at a complex, challenging, difficult job–particularly one at a university.

Certainly, I know of many cases of people who went back to school later in life to get college degrees to “prove” that they can do jobs they were already doing quite well. And I have no doubt that we require a BA as an entry requirement for a whole variety of jobs that simply don’t require the skill sets associated with higher education.

Now Yglesias (and, by association, Douthat) is undoubtedly right that a person’s innate skills and childhood environment are quite important and that possession of a college degree, and especially one from an elite institution, signals privilege in addition to skills. (And they both graduated from Harvard, so they should know.) Still, exposure to the rigor and discipline of a college education at an early age can be transformative.

Further, a college degree is a reasonable proxy for a whole variety of skills. While there are plenty of exceptions in both directions, that a job candidate has a bachelor’s degree signals to a would be employer that he likely has some degree of proficiency in written and oral communication, has the ability to learn new tasks, follow rules, meet deadlines, conform to schedules, and the like.

That signaling mechanism is especially useful for an applicant in his early 20s. Obviously, if a candidate is 35 years old and has a solid work history, the possession or non-possession of a degree is less important. But that’s true of lots of things. Why does a 35-year-old with a clean driving history need to carry a laminated card around showing he passed a driving test at 16?

Fallows, amusingly, cites West Point graduate Ulysses S. Grant as an example of how useful it can be to “ignore pedigree and degrees and concentrate on what someone could actually do.”

He then observes that, “I wouldn’t care if a star professor turned out never to have finished an undergraduate (or graduate) degree. If he or she can motivate the students, that is what counts.” Well, no. Certainly, the ability to motivate students is a useful skill for a college professor. It’s not more important than actual subject matter expertise.

Wittgenstein notwithstanding, how is it that a selection committee would screen applicants to see if they are qualified to teach college courses — let alone graduate school — without some sort of credentialing system? The possession of an accredited PhD is not absolute proof of expertise, to be sure, let alone of teaching skill, but it’s a pretty useful indicator of the former.

Jones apparently excelled as in a university admissions department despite her lack of a degree. It’s hardly unreasonable, though, for the university to prefer someone with a degree in the job, though. Indeed, one generally wants people passing judgment on people’s qualifications to possess said qualifications themselves.

In most jobs, including academe, there are alternative paths for those who bypassed traditional credentialing. Those who have demonstrated intellectual prowess in the outside world are often hired despite a lack of a terminal degree. It’s almost impossible for a 30-year-old to do that, though, without going to grad school.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. on Pamela Martin’s requirements for employees of her DC “escort” service, observes, “Now how’s that for out-of-control credentialism — two years’ college to be a hooker?” Now, I’m all for credentialism but even I fail to see how a college education contributes the skill set required for work in the oldest profession. Presumably, though, these women actually were doing some actual escorting in addition to their, ahem, more noteworthy duties and Martin

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t entirely buy your “signalling mechanism“ justification, James. I think there’s a simpler justification for credentialism in the highly specific hothouse case of the academic environment. Institutions of higher education are in the business (at least in part) of selling degrees. It’s a crass way of putting it but a true one. If they didn’t act in a case like Ms. Jones’s, they’d be unselling their own product. That’s poor marketing.

    There are many, many more direct ways of assessing ompetence than academic degrees. Competitive examination. Prior job experience. Life experience. And so on.

    Additionally, in fields that are diversifying very rapidly credentialling puts a possibly imprudent premium on something that of speculative value (e.g. a newly-minted credential in a brand-new field) over something that’s of proven value (e.g. hands-on experience).

  3. James Joyner says:

    There are many, many more direct ways of assessing ompetence than academic degrees. Competitive examination. Prior job experience. Life experience. And so on.

    But those are awfully expensive and inefficient processes for employers to go through. Credentialing provides an easy pre-screen.

    And, again, I think a college degree is mostly useful in distinguishing 25-year-olds from one another. Once you’ve got a pretty substantial resume, it becomes pointless.

    Indeed, I find it amusing that, for some jobs, they want copies of my nearly-20-year-old college transcripts. This, despite two subsequent graduate degrees and a lifetime of experience.

    For that matter, I have lost out on college teaching jobs because another candidate had more direct coursework than I did in some minor area the position called upon us to teach. That, even though I’d been out of school for several years and, frankly, would have had to re-teach myself most of the material if I hadn’t kept up-to-date by having taught the course.

    I’m not arguing for credentialing to override common sense, just that it’s useful in its place.

  4. Dan Collins says:

    She enjoyed the salary and perquisites for 28 years. I’m not weeping.

  5. Rick DeMent says:

    In most jobs, including academe, there are alternative paths for those who bypassed traditional credentialing.

    This is becoming increasingly rare every day, in may last job search two months ago I was not even allowed to apply for jobs I was clearly qualified simply because I did not have a degree in the field in which I have 15 years of experience. Somehow I am a much worse bet because I didn’t study IT technologies in collage 25 years ago that are all antiquated today.

    In todays job market credentialing trumps common sense all the time because people don’t actually look at resumes anymore, computers do.

  6. legion says:

    Why? Same reason fresh med school grads still have to pull 36-hour shifts, despite the obvious threat to patient safety – “Young man, when I was your age I had to do it, so by God, you have to do it too!”

  7. In theory, a college education is supposed to be a lot more than vocational training. When I look at resumes and transcripts from younger people I pay special attention to what a propective employee did outside their major to see if they were motiviated, dedicated, and hopefully thoughtful in what they chose to take to educate themselves. Is this a well rounded person who will be able to function and grow in an organization or someone just trying to get by, no matter how well they were able to get by? Even so, the half life of any kind of credentialism based on technology can’t be more than four or five years now.

    It seems to me that Ms. Jones’ error merited a reprimand and maybe a chastising letter that would be placed on her permanent record (shudder), but clearly she knew how to do her job and that should have triumphed not actually having a degree. Unless, of course, she was forced to resign for being the type of liar who is really only sorry they got caught, in which case her dismissal might well be warranted. Has there ever been a more appropriate situation for the application of double secret probation than this?

  8. James Joyner says:

    It seems to me that Ms. Jones’ error merited a reprimand and maybe a chastising letter

    But she represented herself as having a BA, MA, and PhD she didn’t have. Granted, I have no idea why a biology PhD would work in an admissions office, let alone why it would be useful. Still, she’s a liar.

  9. It seems to me that something has been missed in this debate. At any university that has an honor code and expects its students not to lie, cheat, or steal, under punishment of potential expulsion (which presumably is the case at MIT), administrators and faculty must be held to the same standards as students. Anything short of firing Jones would send a dangerous signal that lack of academic integrity is somehow redeemable by loyalty, length of service, or simply skating by for 28 years without getting caught.

    The end of the academy is the search for knowledge and truth. Ms. Jones is a willful liar and a charlatan, and like others who subvert truth and the search for knowledge, she has no place in the academy.

  10. Christopher says:


  11. vnjagvet says:

    Especially, Chris, since her department is tasked with evaluating resumes and academic records of candidates who present themselves for admission at MIT.

    The idea that resume or credential fudging or padding is somehow justified because, after all, “the Director did it” does not seem to be the kind of thing that MIT should implicitly encourage by keeping her in that slot.

    OTOH, it wouldn’t offend me if she were removed from her current position and considered for some out-of-the-public-eye staff position until she reaches retirement age.

  12. My father had a winding road to his first job after getting his masters in mechanical engineering (had to leave home to go to high school during the depression, work to save for college, one semester then off to WWII). When he went to apply to the company he ended up working for 36 years, he took a year off his age. He was born at home (as were 5 other of his 10 siblings) with his father as midwife. Given the number of kids, there was a bit of confusion which year he was born, but probably not enough to justify the year. He did it because he was older than his peers, so he shaved a year. He rose from draftsman to a group vice president in an international company. When it came time to retire, he called up the VP of personnel (or human resources or whatever they were calling it at the time) and explained that there was a discrepancy in the corporate records. A change was made in corporate records. It didn’t add or subtract to his pension. He did retire in the same year that the president and executive vice president of the company retired (which just happened to correspond to the peak of benefits for executive retirements).

    I don’t know if his shaving a year impacted his getting the job. Probably no one alive really knows, though my father thought it would help his chances. Obviously he prospered in the company. I don’t know, but I suspect that his age was presented on more than one occasion (e.g. conferences or press releases). I don’t know what age he used in such situations. I know from my business experience dealing with Europe and Asia, that especially in Asia being a bit older doesn’t hurt. So if he used the younger age, he would have marginally lost a tad bit of respect.

    In a way, he was not claiming credit (one more year of life experience) than he was due. Given the life experiences he had, that was not a low point in his resume. The reason the company would want a younger person was to get a longer useful career, but it would be hard to say that my father short changed them after 36 years.

    But the argument could be made that he, like Jones perpetuated the lie every day he went to work. The argument could also be made that both showed they could do the job. Maybe it’s my natural bias, but I see the claiming of degrees as more important than the shaving of a year though the principle is the same for both. By claiming a bachelors, masters and doctorate, you are making a claim about 7 to 9 years of your life. You are saying you have done what you are admitting students to do. Further, by claiming to have achieved these degrees in a time when women getting advanced scientific degrees was rarer, you have a special insight into the what she was initially asked to focus on (recruitment of women).

    In the end, I think her being dismissed was because she had promoted her false degrees to often and it struck at the heart of the diploma mill business. If she had never claimed a college degree past her job interview, they might have been able to just look at her record in the job. No one would have known whether she had or didn’t have a degree. Assumptions on their part would have been their issue unless she led them on.