Credentialism and educational inflation

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Credentialism and educational inflation are any of a number of related processes involving increased demands for formal educational qualifications, and the devaluation of these qualifications. In Western society, there has been increasing reliance on formal qualifications or certification for jobs. This process has, in turn, led to credential inflation (also known as credential creep, academic inflation or degree inflation), the process of inflation of the minimum credentials required for a given job and the simultaneous devaluation of the value of diplomas and degrees. These trends are also associated with grade inflation, a tendency to award progressively higher academic grades for work that would have received lower grades in the past. [1]


There are some occupations which used to require a high school diploma, such as construction supervisors, loans officers, insurance clerks and executive assistants, [2] that are increasingly requiring a bachelor's degree. Some jobs that formerly required candidates to have a bachelor's degree, such as becoming a director in the federal government, [3] tutoring students, or being a history tour guide in a historic site, [4] now require a master's degree. Some jobs that used to require a master's degree, such as junior scientific researcher positions and sessional lecturer jobs, now require a PhD. Also, some jobs that formerly required only a PhD, such as university professor positions, are increasingly requiring one or more postdoctoral fellowship appointments. Often increased requirements are simply a way to reduce the number of applicants to a position. The increasingly global nature of competitions for high-level positions may also be another cause of credential creep. [5]

Credentialism and professionalization

Credentialism is a reliance on formal qualifications or certifications to determine whether someone is permitted to undertake a task, speak as an expert [6] or work in a certain field. It has also been defined as "excessive reliance on credentials, especially academic degrees, in determining hiring or promotion policies." [7] Credentialism occurs where the credentials for a job or a position are upgraded, even though there is no skill change that makes this increase necessary. [8]

Professionalization is the social process by which any trade or occupation is transformed into a true "profession of the highest integrity and competence." [9] This process tends to involve establishing acceptable qualifications, a professional body or association to oversee the conduct of members of the profession and some degree of demarcation of the qualified from unqualified amateurs. This creates "a hierarchical divide between the knowledge-authorities in the professions and a deferential citizenry." [10] This demarcation is often termed "occupational closure", [11] [12] [13] [14] as it means that the profession then becomes closed to entry from outsiders, amateurs and the unqualified: a stratified occupation "defined by professional demarcation and grade." [15]


Knowledge economy

The developed world has transitioned from an agricultural economy (pre-1760s) to an industrial economy (1760s - 1900s) to a knowledge economy (late 1900s - present) due to increases in innovation. This latest stage is marked by technological advancement and global competition to produce new products and research. [16] The shift to a knowledge economy, a term coined by Peter Drucker, has led to a decrease in the demand for physical labor (such as that seen during the Industrial Age) and an increase in the demand for intellect. This has caused a multitude of problems to arise. Economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, who categorized jobs as being either routine cognitive, routine manual, nonroutine cognitive or nonroutine manual, have examined a 30 million increase in the number of nonroutine cognitive jobs over the past 30 years, making it the most common job type. These nonroutine cognitive jobs, according to researchers, require "high intellectual skill." [17] This can be rather difficult to measure in potential employees. [18] Additionally, production outputs differ amongst labor types. The results of manual labor are tangible, whereas the results of knowledge labor are not. Management consultant Fred Nickols identifies an issue with this:

The working behaviors of the manual worker are public and those of the knowledge worker are private. From the perspective of a supervisor or an industrial engineer, this means the visibility of working is high for a manual worker and low for a knowledge worker. [19]

Decreased visibility in the workplace correlates with a greater risk of employees underperforming in cognitive tasks. [20] This, along with the previously mentioned issue of measuring cognitive skill, has resulted in employers requiring credentials, such as college degrees. Matt Sigelman, CEO of a labor market analysis firm, elaborates on why employers such as himself value degrees:

Many employers are using the bachelor’s degree as a proxy for quality employees—a rough, rule-of-thumb screening mechanism to sort through the resume pile. Employers believe in the college experience, not just as an incubator for job-specific skills but particularly for the so-called soft skills, such as writing, analytical thinking and even maturity. [21]


Western culture, specifically that in the United States, has experienced a rise in the attractiveness of professions and a decline in the attractiveness of manufacturing and independent business. This shift could be attributed to the class stratification that occurred during the Gilded Age. [22]

The Gilded Age was period of time marked by a rise in big businesses and globalization, particularly within the construction and oil industries. The popularity of farming declined as individuals took jobs working on large projects such as the Transcontinental Railroad. Rapid advancements such as railroad developments and increased use of steamboats to import/export goods made cities such as New York and Chicago convenient places to operate a business, and therefore ideal places to find work. Local business owners had a difficult time competing with the large companies such as such as Standard Oil and Armour operating out of cities. The popularity of entrepreneurship declined, and people began taking underpaying jobs at these companies. This fueled a class divide between the working class and industrialists (also called "robber barons") such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller. [23]

Attempting to increase the prestige of one's occupation became standard among working class individuals trying to recover from the financial hardships of this time. Unqualified individuals turned to professions such as medicine and law, which had low barriers to entry. [24] Referring to this phenomenon, historian Robert Huddleston Wiebe once commented:

The concept of a middle class crumbled to a touch. Small businesses appeared and disappeared at a frightening rate. The so-called professions meant little as long as anyone with a bag of pills and a bottle of syrup could pass for a doctor, a few books and a corrupt judge made a man a lawyer, and an unemployed literate qualified as a teacher. Nor did the growing number of clerks, salesman, and secretaries of the city share much more than a common sense of drift as they fell into jobs that attached them to nothing in particular, beyond a salary, a set of clean clothes, and a hope that they would somehow rise in the world. [25]

The establishment of legitimized professional certifications began after the turn of the twentieth century when the Carnegie Foundation published reports on medical and law education. One example of such reports is the Flexner Report, written by educator Abraham Flexner. [26] This research led to the closing of low-quality medical and law schools. The impact of the many unqualified workers of the Gilded age also increased motivation to weed out unqualified workers in other professions. Professionalization increased, and the number of professions and professionals multiplied. There were economic benefits to this because it lowered the competition for jobs by weeding out unqualified candidates, driving up salaries. [27]

The alliance of employers with educational institutions progressed throughout the twentieth century as businesses and technological advancements progressed. Businessmen were unable to keep schedules or accounts in their heads like the small-town merchant had once done. New systems of accounting, organization, and business management were developed. In his book The Visible Hand, Alfred Chandler of Harvard Business School explained that the increase in large corporations with multiple divisions killed off the hybrid owner/managers of simpler times and created a demand for salaried, “scientific” management. [28] The development of professional management societies, research groups, and university business programs began in the early 1900s. By 1910, Harvard and Dartmouth offered graduate business programs and NYU, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania offered undergraduate business programs. By the 1960s, nearly half of all managerial jobs formally required either an undergraduate or graduate degree. [29]

Academic inflation

Academic inflation is the contention that an excess of college-educated individuals with lower degrees (associate and bachelor's degrees) and even higher qualifications (master's or doctorate degrees) compete for too few jobs that require these degrees. [30]

Academic inflation occurs when university graduates take up work that was not formerly done by graduates of a certain level, and higher-degree holders continue to migrate to this particular occupation until it eventually becomes a field known as a "graduate profession" and the minimum job requirements have been inflated academically for low-level job tasks. [31]

The institutionalizing of professional education has resulted in fewer and fewer opportunities for young people to work their way up from by "learning on the job." Academic inflation leads employers to put more faith into certificates and diplomas awarded on the basis of other people's assessments. [31]

The term "academic inflation" was popularized by Ken Robinson in his TED Talk entitled "Schools Kill Creativity." [32] [33]

Academic inflation has been analogized to the inflation of paper currencies where too much currency chases too few commodities. [34]

Credential inflation or degree inflation

Credential inflation refers to the devaluation of educational or academic credentials over time and a corresponding decrease in the expected advantage given a degree holder in the job market. Credential inflation is thus similar to price inflation, and describes the declining value of earned certificates and degrees. Credential inflation has been recognized as an enduring trend over the past century in Western higher education, and is also known to have occurred in ancient China and Japan, and at Spanish universities of the 17th century. [35] [36] [37] [38] [39] [40]

For instance, in the late 1980s, a bachelor's degree was the standard qualification to enter the profession of physical therapy. [41] By the 1990s, a master's degree was expected. Today, a doctorate is becoming the norm.


A good example of credential inflation is the decline in the value of the US high school diploma since the beginning of the 20th century, when it was held by less than 10 percent of the population. At the time, high school diplomas attested to middle-class respectability and for many years even provided access to managerial level jobs. More recently, however, a high school diploma barely qualifies the graduate for menial service work. [42]

One indicator of credential inflation is the relative decline in the wage differential between those with college degrees and those with only high school diplomas. [43] An additional indicator is the gap between the credentials requested by employers in job postings and the qualifications of those already in those occupations. A 2014 study in the United States found, for example, that 65% of job postings for executive secretaries and executive assistants now call for a bachelor's degree, but only 19% of those currently employed in these roles have a degree. [44] Jobs that were open to high school graduates decades ago now routinely require higher education as well—without an appreciable change in required skills. [45] In some cases, such as IT help desk roles, a study found there was little difference in advertised skill requirements between jobs requiring a college degree and those that do not. [44]


The causes of credential inflation are controversial, but it is generally thought to be the result of increased access to higher education. This has resulted in entry level jobs requesting a bachelor's (or higher) degree when they were once open to high school graduates. [46] Potential sources of credential inflation include: degree requirements by employers, self-interest of individuals and families, increased standards of living which allow for additional years of education, cultural pushes for being educated, and the availability of federal student loans which allow many more individuals to obtain credentials than could otherwise afford to do so. [47] [48]

In particular, the internal dynamics of credential inflation threaten higher education initiatives around the world because credential inflation appears to operate independently of market demand for credentials. [49]

The push for more Americans to get a higher education rests on the well-evidenced idea that those without a college degree are less employable. [50] [51] Many critics of higher education, in turn, complain that a surplus of college graduates has produced an "employer's market." [52] [53]


Credential inflation is a controversial topic. There is very little consensus on how, or if, this type of inflation impacts higher education, the job market, and salaries. Some common concerns discussed in this topic are:

Grade inflation

Grade inflation is the tendency to award progressively higher academic grades for work that would have received lower grades in the past. It is frequently discussed in relation to education in the United States, and to GCSEs and A levels in England and Wales. It is also discussed as an issue in Canada and many other nations, especially Australia and New Zealand.

See also

Academic inflation
Degree inflation

Related Research Articles

Higher education Academic tertiary education, such as from colleges and universities

Higher education is tertiary education leading to award of an academic degree. Higher education, also called post-secondary education, third-level or tertiary education, is an optional final stage of formal learning that occurs after completion of secondary education. It represents levels 6, 7 and 8 of the 2011 version of the International Standard Classification of Education structure. Tertiary education at a non-degree level is sometimes referred to as further education or continuing education as distinct from higher education.

Tertiary education Advanced level of education, usually for adults

Tertiary education, also referred to as third-level, third-stage or post-secondary education, is the educational level following the completion of secondary education. The World Bank, for example, defines tertiary education as including universities as well as trade schools and colleges. Higher education is taken to include undergraduate and postgraduate education, while vocational education beyond secondary education is known as further education in the United Kingdom, or included under the category of continuing education in the United States.

An academic degree is a qualification awarded to students upon successful completion of a course of study in higher education, usually at a college or university. These institutions commonly offer degrees at various levels, usually including bachelor's, master's and doctorates, often alongside other academic certificates and professional degrees. The most common undergraduate degree is the bachelor's degree, although in some countries there are lower level higher education qualifications that are also titled degrees.

A bachelor's degree or baccalaureate is an undergraduate academic degree awarded by colleges and universities upon completion of a course of study lasting three to seven years. In some institutions and educational systems, some bachelor's degrees can only be taken as graduate or postgraduate degrees after a first degree has been completed. In countries with qualifications frameworks, bachelor's degrees are normally one of the major levels in the framework, although some qualifications titled bachelor's degrees may be at other levels and some qualifications with non-bachelor's titles may be classified as bachelor's degrees.

Undergraduate education Academic programs up to the level of a bachelors degree

Undergraduate education is education conducted after secondary education and prior to postgraduate education. It typically includes all postsecondary programs up to, but not including, the level of a bachelor's degree. For example, in the United States, an entry-level university student is known as an undergraduate, while students of higher degrees are known as graduate students. In some other educational systems, undergraduate education is postsecondary education up to the level of a master's degree; this is the case for some science courses in Britain and some medicine courses in Europe.

A Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) is a graduate professional degree which prepares students for work as a teacher in schools, though in some countries like Tanzania, Kenya and various other countries, additional tasks like field work and research are required in order for the student to be fully qualified to teach.


A diploma is a certificate or deed issued by an educational institution, such as college or university, that testifies that the recipient has successfully completed a particular course of study. The word diploma also refers to an academic award which is given after the completion of study in different courses such as diploma in higher education, diploma in graduation or diploma in post graduation etc. Historically, it can also refer to a charter or official document, thus diplomatic, diplomat and diplomacy via the Codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus.

Bronte International University is an unaccredited post-secondary educational institution formerly in South Dakota. It is widely considered to be a diploma mill, operated from an unknown location. Its website offers "fast" degrees for "life experience".

The British undergraduate degree classification system is a grading structure for undergraduate degrees or bachelor's degrees and integrated master's degrees in the United Kingdom. The system has been applied in other countries and regions.

A graduate diploma is generally a qualification taken after completion of a first degree, although the level of study varies in different countries from being at the same level as the final year of a bachelor's degree to being at a level between a master's degree and a doctorate. In some countries the graduate diploma and postgraduate diploma are synonymous, while in others the postgraduate diploma is a higher qualification.

An engineer's degree is an advanced academic degree in engineering which is conferred in Europe, some countries of Latin America, North Africa and a few institutions in the United States. The degree may require a graduate thesis or dissertation at the level of a research doctorate such as a PhD.

A credential is a piece of any document that details a qualification, competence, or authority issued to an individual by a third party with a relevant or de facto authority or assumed competence to do so.

The Master of Education is a master's degree awarded by universities in many countries. This degree in education often includes the following majors: curriculum and instruction, counseling, school psychology, and administration. It is often conferred for educators advancing in their field. Similar degrees include the Master of Arts in Education and the Master of Science in Education.

Educational attainment in the United States

The educational attainment of the U.S. population refers to the highest level of education completed. The educational attainment of the U.S. population is similar to that of many other industrialized countries with the vast majority of the population having completed secondary education and a rising number of college graduates that outnumber high school dropouts. As a whole, the population of the United States is spending more years in formal educational programs. As with income, levels differ by race, age, household configuration, and geography.

Certified teacher

A certified teacher is an educator who has earned credentials from an authoritative source, such as the government, a higher education institution or a private body or source. This teacher qualification gives a teacher authorization to teach and grade in pre-schools, primary or secondary education in countries, schools, content areas or curricula where authorization is required. While many authorizing entities require student teaching experience before earning teacher certification, routes vary from country to country.

In the UK education sector, there are a wide range of qualification types offered by the United Kingdom awarding bodies. Qualifications range in size and type, can be academic, vocational or skills-related, and are grouped together into different levels of difficulty. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, qualifications are divided into Higher Education qualifications, which are on the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) and are awarded by bodies with degree awarding powers, and Regulated qualifications, which are on the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) and are accredited by Ofqual in England, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment in Northern Ireland and Qualifications Wales in Wales. In Scotland, qualifications are divided into Higher Education qualifications, Scottish Qualifications Authority qualifications and Scottish Vocational Qualifications/Modern Apprenticeships, all of which are on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). Scottish Higher Education Qualifications are on both the SCQF and the FHEQ.

A graduate certificate is an educational credential representing completion of specialized training at the college or university level. A graduate certificate can be awarded by universities upon completion of certain coursework indicating mastering of a specific subject area. Graduate certificates represent training at different levels in different countries and can be at bachelor's degree or master's degree level.

New England Board of Higher Education

The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) is an interstate compact that was founded in 1955, when six visionary New England governors – realizing that the future prosperity of New England rested on higher education – committed their states to the shared pursuit of academic excellence. Soon thereafter, NEBHE was approved by New England’s six state legislatures and authorized by the U.S. Congress. NEBHE serves the six New England states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Alternative pathways in education are alternative means of obtaining educational qualifications, other than the traditional means of gaining access to or completing the required study to obtain the educational qualifications.

Credential evaluation is the way in which academic and professional degrees earned in one country are compared to those earned in another. Universities, colleges and employers around the world use credential evaluations to understand foreign education and to judge applicants for admission or employment.


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Further reading

Credential inflation

Academic inflation

Grade inflation