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.

Apprenticeship System of employment

An apprenticeship is a system of training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study. Apprenticeships can also enable practitioners to gain a license to practice in a regulated profession. Most of their training is done while working for an employer who helps the apprentices learn their trade or profession, in exchange for their continued labor for an agreed period after they have achieved measurable competencies. Apprenticeship lengths vary significantly across sectors, professions, roles and cultures. People who successfully complete an apprenticeship in some cases can reach the "journeyman" or professional certification level of competence. In others can be offered a permanent job at the company that provided the placement. Although the formal boundaries and terminology of the apprentice/journeyman/master system often do not extend outside guilds and trade unions, the concept of on-the-job training leading to competence over a period of years is found in any field of skilled labor.

Undergraduate education is education conducted after secondary education and prior to postgraduate education. It typically includes all postsecondary programs up to 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.

Grading in education is the process of applying standardized measurements of varying levels of achievement in a course. Grades can be assigned as letters, as a range, as a percentage, or as a number out of a possible total.


Underemployment is the underuse of a worker because a job does not use the worker's skills, is part-time, or leaves the worker idle. Examples include holding a part-time job despite desiring full-time work, and overqualification, in which the employee has education, experience, or skills beyond the requirements of the job.

A dietitian is an expert in dietetics; that is, human nutrition and the regulation of diet. A dietitian alters their patient's nutrition based upon their medical condition and individual needs. Dietitians are regulated healthcare professionals licensed to assess, diagnose, and treat nutritional problems.

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 diploma mill is a company or organization that claims to be a higher education institution but provides illegitimate academic degrees and diplomas for a fee. These degrees may claim to give credit for relevant life experience, but should not be confused with legitimate prior learning assessment programs. They may also claim to evaluate work history or require submission of a thesis or dissertation for evaluation to give an appearance of authenticity. Diploma mills are frequently supported by accreditation mills, set up for the purpose of providing an appearance of authenticity. The term may also be used pejoratively to describe an accredited institution with low academic admission standards and a low job placement rate. An individual may or may not be aware that the degree they have obtained is not wholly legitimate. In either case, legal issues can arise if the qualification is used in résumés.

A licentiate is a degree below that of a PhD given by universities in some countries. The term is also used for a person who holds this degree. The term derives from Latin licentia, "freedom", which is applied in the phrases licentia docendi meaning permission to teach and licentia ad practicandum signifying someone who holds a certificate of competence to practise a profession. Many countries have degrees with this title, but they may represent different educational levels.

A credential is an attestation of 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.

Gatekeeper person who controls access to something

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Professionalization is a social process by which any trade or occupation transforms itself into a true "profession of the highest integrity and competence." The definition of what constitutes a profession is often contested. Professionalization tends to result in establishing acceptable qualifications, one or more professional associations to recommend best practice and to oversee the conduct of members of the profession, and some degree of demarcation of the qualified from unqualified amateurs. It is also likely to create "occupational closure", closing the profession to entry from outsiders, amateurs and the unqualified.

National Academy of Higher Education (NAHE) identifies itself as an organization specializing in evaluation of people's educational credentials. Some United States educational authorities identify it as an unrecognized accreditation organization or accreditation mill. NAHE charges fees for a service described as an evaluation of the educational credentials of clients who have studied in other countries or attained degrees through alternative methods.

Academic certificate document that certifies that a person has received specific education or has passed a test or series of tests.

An academic certificate is a document that certifies that a person has received specific education or has passed a test or series of tests.

Unaccredited institutions of higher education are colleges, trade schools, seminaries, and universities which do not have formal educational accreditation.

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New England Board of Higher Education

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The opportunity trap is the social congestion in the competition for jobs when the number of applicants outstrips the demand for a particular group of workers – in particular, graduate school degree-holding applicants. It is distinct from an opportunity gap, which is a lack of equal opportunity. An example of fields where the number of applicants far outstrips the available opportunities includes humanities professors. Large numbers of graduate students complete PhD programs in English literature, history and music history, but there are only a handful of openings for professor positions. The PhD graduates who cannot find professor positions may experience underemployment, such as working at a job which does not require their education.

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