The new credentialing

By | February 14, 2015

Bernard Bull writes a consistently interesting blog on a variety of topics related to education. In his latest edition, he describes himself as “An academic who cheers for badges and the demonopolization of higher education”. Once I got past my initial reading of his topic as relating to the prevalence of demons in higher education (a point with which I would certainly have agreed),I find myself largely in agreement with his pleas for a wider evaluation of educational achievement. But since I had more to say than would fit conveniently in a comment to him, I thought I’d expand on my points here.

The core of the issue is “credentialing” through the educational system. In some recent posts, I’ve explored some of the issues relating to competency-based education. CBE promoters tend to see its emphasis on varied paths to competence demonstration as a strength. I’ve registered my own concerns, however, that by reinforcing credentialing, we may be locking ourselves into an equally rigid new system.

The importance of credentialing in our society tends to be taken for granted. For someone who’s invested as many years in higher educations as I have, you’d think I’d come to accept that. But contrarian that I am, I increasingly find myself asking just what “credentials” mean, and how they are used.

Essentially, a credential is a document of some sort that asserts that its bearer knows something, which may or may not include knowing how to do something outside the capabilities of an ordinary person. This document is generated by a third party, presumably contingent on its independent evaluation of the capabilities being claimed.

The importance and value of a credential is contingent upon the need for the claimed capability and the credibility of the third party as an evaluator. Some credentials are more important than others. It’s a really good idea to be sure that someone who proposes to perform neurosurgery has actually studied the subject and performed a certain amount of it under the guidance of someone else who knows how. A degree from a top medical school, a certificate of a neurosurgery residency, and passage of the neurosurgery boards are all elements of such a credential. Toward the other end of the spectrum, a hairdressing license issued by the state of California is probable assurance that its bearer knows how to hold a pair of scissors, but is certainly no guarantee of getting a good haircut. A credential such as a bachelor’s degree in arts or sciences supposedly testifies that its bearer knows some things about a lot of things, but not necessarily anything in particular. My BA in history from Reed College supposedly testified to my having certain general academic and thinking skills, although it probably spoke more to my having abandoned history as a career than to any particular accomplishment beyond staying the course.

My PhD credential has been more relevant to my career, but again, its value is ambiguous. Basically, it certifies only that at some point thirty years ago I was able to conduct an adequate piece of behavioral science research. It’s been interpreted at various points over the years as certifying that I’m qualified to teach about certain subjects at a fairly high level, but there’s nothing inherent in the credential itself that establishes that. It’s also been interpreted at times as evidence of my qualification to offer management advice, although it’s even less useful in that respect. Much of its value derives from the academic reputation of the University of Michigan, rather than from anything about me personally. My credibility as an academic derives only minimally from my official credential; it’s primarily based on the work I’ve done, the students I taught and their subsequent accomplishments, and my contributions to the various schools where I’ve been.

Coincidentally, I’m also a pretty good plumber and electrician. These skills I’ve developed mostly by informal apprenticeship to people who knew what they were doing, by following official rules such as the Electrical Code, and by extensive practice through remodeling some seven houses. None of these skills, however, bear any official certification, and I would be subject to serious penalties if I were to try to practice them anywhere outside my own house. I’m at least as good a plumber as I am a management consultant. But it’s odd that plumbing (where the potential downside is simply a lot of loose water) requires an official credential, while management consulting (where the potential downside is corporate disaster) can be freely practiced by anyone.

The problem with credentialing as a social phenomenon is that it tends to be an all or nothing proposition. Either you have a plumbing license or you don’t. Either you have a BA degree or you don’t. But virtually every endeavor subject to credentialing is a matter of degree; there’s no guarantee that the holder of a credential is equally skilled at all of the knowledge and/or tasks involved. When you review someone’s credential, you essentially take it on faith that the issuer of the credential is qualified to assess the capabilities involved. Thus, the value of a credential derives primarily from who issues it, rather than from anything about the person who possesses it. Ultimately, of course, it’s performance that counts. But without that credential as a door opener, it’s often impossible to obtain the opportunity to perform.

As a practical demonstration, I’ve recently signed up to become a service provider with TaskRabbit, one of the “entrepreneurial” websites that supposedly links qualified people with jobs that need to be done. An updated temp agency for millennials and the occasional superannuated boomer like me. I have no idea how this will go; it should be an interesting test of whether my official credentials amount to anything in this Brave New World. I’ll keep you all posted.