Getting Informed About the Risks & Challenges of Credentialism

Credentialism is often described as the over-emphasis of credentials in society, impacting access to employment, social mobility, and overall social status. With growing interest in nano-diplomas, micro-credentials, the idea of the college degree as a minimum requirement for many jobs; credentialism is an important topic for reflection and discussion.

Much of the initial work on this subject started in the 1970s, but a small number of scholars, authors and others remain vocal about the problem today, especially as we see more people viewing the college degree as becoming the entry-level credential for jobs, and as we see emerging alternatives to traditional credentials.

My concern is with increased access and opportunity, for an education system that cultivates self-directed learners with high levels of agency. Credentialism serves formal learning organizations and other continuing education providers by helping increase the perceived value of credentials earned through these organizations. It leads to a more viable economic model for such institutions. Yet, education is first a social endeavor, one with goals focused upon social good. Learning organizations that become about little more than keeping their doors open, self-preservation, or maintaining control through a monopoly of credentials risk losing sight of the fact that they are a social enterprise. There are economic realities, but those realities are not the organizational mission.

In such a context, I see great value in learning from the many existing resources on the challenges of credentialisim. With that in mind, here are eight such online resources to serve as a primer on the topic. Following that list is a second list of suggested books on the subject.

The Social Sources of Educational Credentialism – This essay provides a number of thought-provoking insights into the role of education credentials for social mobility, as well as how credentialism potentially undermines other important aims of formal education.

The Case Against Credentialism – This Atlantic article from 1985 provides a compelling case against credentialism, drawing attention away from actual knowledge and skill, instead elevating the academic symbols.

The Higher Ed Crisis: Credentialism – “An education and a degree are not the same.” This article expands upon that claim.

The New Politics of Education: Credentialism and Grade Inflation – This article not only addresses credentialism but also perceived challenges associated with grade inflation. The author points out the dangers of using academic credential primarily as currency for employment.

The Soaring Cost of Credentialism – This article makes the important distinction between learning about a profession in a classroom and experiencing in on the job. However, the focus is upon the economic benefits of increased professional credentials in higher education for professors and those leading such institutions.

The Diploma Disease – This is the title of a 1976 book. The link takes you to a short book review, introducing some of the themes in this original text, opening our eyes to some the downside and limitation of an over-dependence upon diplomas a credentials for employment.

Functional and Conflict Theories in Educational Stratification – This academic article is not an easy read for all, but it provides an insight into the connection between educational attainment and social stratification.

Credential Inflation and the Future of Universities – This academic article argues that the “mass production of academic credentials for employment” is a significant problem in contemporary society.

Suggested Books About Credentialism 








Posted in blog, credentialism, education, micro-credentialing

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

2 Replies to “Getting Informed About the Risks & Challenges of Credentialism”

  1. Michael Olneck

    Your readers may also appreciate Randall Collins’ “The Dirty Little Secret of Credential Inflation” in a 2002 issue of the Chronicle.

    However, David Baker, in The Schooled Society (Stanford University Press, 2014), argues that credentialism is a myth, and that that credentials are rationally related to the demands of the workplace.

    I tend to believe that credentialism is at work, but that far more than credentialism explains the observed “payoff” to credentials.

    I also could not find any evidence of credential inflation in the data in most recent edition of The State of the American Worker volumes. Importantly, not only the differential in earnings between college degree holders and high school graduates held up or increased, but the earnings attainment of college graduates, in constant dollars, had not fallen. This surprised me greatly.

    To be a bit more clear, while credential inflation – I.e. declining value of credentials associated with supply exceeding demand – can accompany credentialism, the two are analytically and empirically separable.

    Michael Olneck
    Professor Emeritus of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thanks for the thoughtful and helpful comment. I have learned quite a bit from Collins’s work on this subject. I suspect that you are familiar with his 1979 text, The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. He certainly points to research indicating credentialism in the first half of the 20th century. I have not seen a comparable work since then.

      Where I see this conversation as especially important today is in cultivating a broader discussion about credentials. Credentials serve as a shorthand for desired skills and knowledge for the workforce. Yet, we all know that these credentials do not always accurately represent competence of the person who has the credential. We see this in everything from driver’s licenses to gun owners permits to teaching endorsements and licenses in healthcare professions.

Comments are closed.