The Case For Credentialism
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.