Credentialism and educational inflation

Due to credentialism and educational inflation, job candidates are required to obtain higher degrees for positions that formerly had lower credential requirements. Pictured is a graduate student at her Ph.D graduation ceremony.

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 have been increasing requirements for formal qualifications or certification for jobs, a process called credentialism or professionalization. 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. In countries in the Middle East, where the rulers have traditionally used public sector jobs as a form of political appeasement for the middle classes, this has resulted in many youth seeking university degrees that are only suited for work in public sector roles, making them unqualified for private sector roles.[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. As well, some jobs that used to require a master's degree, such as junior scientific researcher positions and sessional lecturer jobs, now require a Ph.D. Finally, some jobs that formerly required only a Ph.D, such as university professor positions, are increasingly requiring one or more postdoctoral fellowship appointments. Furthermore, the increasingly global nature of competitions for high-level positions is another cause of credential creep.

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[5] 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.".[6] Credentialism has also been defined as occurring where the credentials for a job or a position are upgraded, even though there is no skill change that makes this increase necessary.[7]

Professionalization is the social process by which any trade or occupation is transformed into a true "profession of the highest integrity and competence."[8] 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."[9] This demarcation is often termed "occupational closure",[10][11][12][13] 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."[14] The origin of this process is said to have been with guilds during the Middle Ages, when they fought for exclusive rights to practice their trades as journeymen, and to engage unpaid apprentices.[15]


Over the past sixty years in the Western world, and more recently in developing countries, there has been significant growth in the number of people who have educational credentials, an increase in the number of credentialing bodies, and a growth in the use of educational credentials as a way of selecting people for employment.[16]

Psychologist Tony Buon has stated that in demanding credentials for certain occupations, employers' reasons fall into two rather crude categories:

  1. The Investment Effect-credentials show that the applicant has undergone certain educational training that has made the applicant more productive.
  2. The Screening Effect-education, and hence credentials, indicate certain attributes in the applicant that the employer wants.

Buon cautions that this is an uneasy dichotomy and that it is probable that in every case, to some extent, the screening and the investment effect would co-exist.[17]

An employer may require a diploma, professional license or academic degree for a job which can be done by applying skills acquired through experience, informal study, or less extensive study. One example is the requirement by some investment banks that new hires have an M.Sc. in Economics. Jobs that, in the past, required a high school diploma (such as entry level policy analysts in the government) increasingly require a B.A. degree or even an M.A. during the screening process.

Credentialism can be lessened if certification accurately reflects actual skill competencies and expectations of those skill competencies. As Tony Buon & Bob Compton (1990) state, given that the entire recruitment process is aimed at predicting future success, it does not make a great deal of sense to rely on only one indicator (i.e. educational credentials).[16] The results of at least one study support this view, and suggest that employers see experience as a better indication of potential work performance than educational credentials.[18]

Social status

The term "credentialism" also refers to an over-emphasis on certificates and degrees as a way of determining social status.[19] Credentialism can lead to credential inflation. Sociologist Randall Collins' 1979 book The Credential Society "examine[s] the connection between credentialism and stratification." [20]

Credential creep

Credential creep is the process of inflation of the minimum job requirement. This may happen when a professional organization increases the entry to practice requirements for the profession, or it may be the result of "one-upsmanship" among candidates for a job, creating a kind of de facto increase in required credentials for a position.

In the early 1900s (decade), an individual with a high school diploma could essentially work as a banking professional and rise to the ranks of a branch manager or to even branch president. However, the quest for further education, the industrial revolution and the subsequent surge in national population in the U.S.A. in the mid-20th century resulted in a professional transposition. In the process, the bachelor’s degree supplanted the standing of high-school training, and the credentials required for certain positions increased. This occurrence continued up to the end of the last century; as a furtherance of this trend based on the same conditions, the early years of the current century saw the master’s degree displacing the bachelor's degree in some job-entry positions.

For instance, in the late 1980s, a bachelor's degree was the standard ticket to enter the profession of occupational therapy.[21] By the 1990s, a master's degree was expected. Today, a doctorate is becoming the norm. This change was due to the explosion of bachelor's degrees spurred by the rise in knowledge exchange—hinged on population growth and technological innovation. With the advent of globalization, recent years see the Ph.D. taking over the role of the master's degree—especially professional degrees. Universities are currently reporting significant renewed interest in their graduate programs, with a particular focus on Ph.D. study, as candidates consider retraining or adding new skills to their resumes that will benefit them if the economic situation improves. What once was considered to be specific training for the academic profession and open to a minor assemblage of individuals absorbed in research has become a benchmark for some job-entry positions. This change is forcing individuals to push for more advanced degrees to be considered for some positions.

The creeping-credentials phenomenon has resulted in the growth in the higher-education industry, with institutions expanding their offerings beyond the traditional graduate degrees. Offerings now include increasingly narrow, job-specific training courses. Degrees aimed at working professionals often come with very high tuition pricing.

Another consequence of credential creep is the increased time spent in school, with the resulting deferment of career establishment.

Academic inflation

"Academic inflation", or "education inflation," is the process of inflation of the minimum job requirement, and the simultaneous growing number of higher educated persons. This results in an excess of college-educated individuals with lower degrees (associate and bachelor's degrees), and even higher qualifications (master's or doctorate degrees), competing for too few jobs that require these degrees, and devaluation of educational degrees. This condition causes an intensified race for higher qualification and education in a society where a bachelor's degree today is no longer sufficient to gain employment in the same jobs that may have only required a two- or four-year degree in former years.[22] Inflation has occurred in the minimum degree requirements for jobs, to the level of master's degrees, Ph.D.s, and post-doctoral, even where advanced degree knowledge is not absolutely necessary to perform the required job.

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.[23] It is an effect of overeducation.

The institutionalizing of professional education has resulted in fewer and fewer opportunities for young people to work their way up from artisan to professional status (e.g., as an engineer) by "learning on the job". Academic inflation leads employers to put more and more faith into certificates and diplomas awarded on the basis of other people's assessments.[23]

The term "academic inflation" was popularized by Sir Ken Robinson in his TED (technology, entertainment, design) Talk entitled "Schools Kill Creativity".[24][25]

Academic inflation is similar to inflation of paper currencies where too much currency chases too few commodities.[26]

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.[27][28] [29][30][31][32]


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, the high school diploma barely qualifies the graduate for manual or menial service work.[33]

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.[34] 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.[35] Jobs that were open to high school graduates decades ago now routinely require higher education as well—without an appreciable change in required skills.[36] 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 and those that do not.[35]

A predictable result of credential inflation is a glut of the credential markets and overschooling. It is estimated that 30 percent of the college graduates in 2005 will be forced into jobs that do not require a degree.[37] M.B.A. or M.A. holders may end up working as store clerks or servers.


The causes of credential inflation are controversial, but it is generally thought to be the result of a strong push for education in the 1980s and 90's along with increased technological 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.[38] 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, high unemployment which spurs the need for competitive advantages in the job market, and cultural pushes for being educated.[39][40]

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.[41] Credential markets themselves, as described by signalling theory, use earned degrees as a measure of ability in screening potential employees. This is because employers take it for granted that degrees are positively correlated with greater ability. (See Michael Spence's job-market signalling model.)

Although credential inflation has been acknowledged for years by institutions of higher education, a clear solution or consensus on how to address the problem has not yet been found or agreed upon. Academic institutions are generally expected to provide education to qualified applicants who desire admission, and many economists and politicians find the idea of government regulations on private hiring practices to be a large overstep in combating the issue.

The push for more Americans to get a higher education rests on the idea that those without a college degree are unemployable. Many critics of higher education, in turn, complain that the "college completion" movement is what feeds credential inflation, with employers imposing a degree requirement for many jobs that never required one simply because they can.[42]

Problems Associated With Credential Inflation

Credential inflation is a highly 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 an issue in Canada and many other nations, especially Australia and New Zealand.

Possible problems associated with grade inflation

Princeton University took a rare stand against grade inflation in 2004, and publicly announced a policy designed to curb it. The policy states that "A" grades should account for less than 35% of the grades for undergraduate courses, and less than 55% of grades for junior and senior independent work. The standard by which the grading record of each department or program is evaluated is the percentage of "A" grades given over the previous three years.[52]

Arguments against the existence of grade inflation

See also

Academic inflation
Degree inflation


  1. 'Making sense of Arab labor markets: the enduring legacy of dualism', Ragui Assaad, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Retrieved 19th September 2015:
  3. Some positions of Director in the Canadian federal government, an entry-level Executive position, which formerly required a bachelor's degree began requiring a master's degree as the minimum credential in the 2000s
  5. "Credentialism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Retrieved December 12, 2014 from
  8. Nilsson, Henrik (n.d.). "Professionalism, Lecture 5, What is a Profession?" (PDF). University of Nottingham. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-26. Retrieved 2007-08-05.
  9. What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It? Philip E. Agre, August 2004
  10. Kim A. Weeden (2001). "Why Do Some Occupations Pay More than Others? Social Closure and Earnings Inequality in the United States". American Journal of Sociology. 108: 55–101. doi:10.1086/344121. Retrieved 2014-06-07.
  11. Anne Witz (1990-11-01). "Patriarchy and Professions: The Gendered Politics of Occupational Closure". Sociology. 24.4: 675–690. doi:10.1177/0038038590024004007. Retrieved 2014-06-07.
  12. S. A. L. Cavanagh (2003-03-01). "The Gender of Professionalism and Occupational Closure: the management of tenure-related disputes by the 'Federation of Women Teachers' Associations of Ontario' 1918–1949". Gender and Education. 15.1: 39–57. doi:10.1080/0954025032000042130. Retrieved 2014-06-07.
  13. "Karen Mahony & Brett Van Toen, "Mathematical Formalism as a Means of Occupational Closure in Computing—Why 'Hard' Computing Tends to Exclude Women," Gender and Education, 2.3, 1990, pp. 319–31". Retrieved 4 October 2014.
  14. Rhona Macdonald (2004). "The Hospital at Night". British Medical Journal. Retrieved 2014-06-07.
  15. see Benton, 1985
  16. 1 2
  20. Boundless. “The Credentialized Society.” Boundless Sociology. Boundless, 14 Nov. 2014. Retrieved 08 Jan. 2015 from
  22. Vedder, R. The Great College-Degree Scam, The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 2010
  23. 1 2 Rowntree, 'Assessing Students: How Shall We Know Them?', Routledge Grading 1987, page 19, ISBN 1-85091-300-5
  24. Rispin, Kenith. "Academic Inflation – Disaster in the Work Place". Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  25. Robinson, Ken. "Schools Kill Creativity".
  26. Day et al., Issues in Educational Drama, Taylor & Francis, 1983, page 12, ISBN 0-905273-66-4
  27. Randall Collins, 2000. "Comparative and Historical Patterns of Education," in Maureen T. Hallinan (ed.), Handbook of the Sociology of Education. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. Pp. 213 - 239
  28. Randall Collins, 1998, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Pp. 580 - 582.
  29. Van de Werfhorst and Anderson, "Social Background, Credential Inflation and Educational Strategies," Acta Sociologica (Dec 2005) 48 (4): 321-340.
  30. Ronald P. Dore, 1976. The Diploma Disease: Education, Qualification, and Development. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  31. Randall Collins, 1981. "Crises and Declines in Credential Systems," in Randall Collins, Sociology since Mid-century: Essays in Theory Cumulation. New York: Academic Press. Pp. 191—215
  32. John W. Chaffee, 1985. The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  33. 1 2 Randall Collins, "Credential Inflation and the Future of Universities," Chapter One of The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, edited by Steven Brint (Stanford University Press, 2002), pages 23-46.
  34. David Wessel, Why It Takes a Doctorate To Beat Inflation, Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2006, page A2.
  35. 1 2 Burning Glass Technologies, "Moving the Goalposts: How Demand for a Bachelor’s Degree Is Reshaping the Workforce," Sept. 2014, accessed 2016-06-12
  36. Educational Testing Service, "What Jobs Require: Literacy, Education, and Training 1940-2006, published January 2000, accessed 2016-06-12
  37. David F. Labaree, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education, Yale University Press (1997), pages 71-72. A good example of this is the "Ph.D. glut," or the oversupply of terminal degrees at levels in excess of what the job market requires for certain disciplines. Gary North, The Ph.D Glut Revisited, January 24, 2006
  38. Furlong, Andy (2013). Youth Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge. p. 73. ISBN 9780415564762.
  39. Randall Collins, 1979. The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press.
  40. David K. Brown, “The Social Sources of Educational Credentialism: Status Cultures, Labor Markets, and Organizations,” Sociology of Education, Extra Issue (2001): 19-34.
  41. David F. Labaree, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education, Yale University Press (1997).
  44. Presentation of Chris Rasmussen, Director of Policy Research, Midwestern Higher Education Compact, at Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, before the US Department of Education, on October 5, 2006. Transcript page 174.
  45. David F. Labaree, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education, Yale University Press (1997), pages 32, 50, 259.
  50. Leef, George (21 April 2016). "Grade Inflation Eats Away at the Meaning of College". Foundation for Economic Education. Retrieved 7 July 2016.
  51. Thompson, Derek (December 2012). "The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions" (PDF). The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 30 May 2016.
  52. Quiñones, Eric (21 September 2009), Princeton achieves marked progress in curbing grade inflation, Princeton: News at Princeton

Further reading

External links

Look up credentialism and educational inflation in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

Credential inflation

Academic inflation

Grade inflation

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