Credentialism is the practice of using a person’s qualifications, such as degrees or certificates, as a way to solely assess their skills, knowledge, and experience for a job or activity.
While it is often used to determine if an individual is suitable for a certain role, it has been seen by some as a discriminatory process, and an inaccurate representation of a candidate’s potential for success.
For example, educational credentialism could be criticized as over-valuing theoretical knowledge and under-valuing practical knowledge. This over-inflates the value and therefore cost of university degrees, putting young people into debt as part of a race to gain educational cultural capital.
The term “credentialism” was coined by sociologist Randall Collins, in his 1979 publication, The Credential Society: a Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification.
His compiled research pointed to clear evidence of “education being used as a means of cultural selection” and uses the data collected on high school dropout hiring data to illustrate his point (p. 32).
Here are two key scholarly definitions:
- “In the same way that we use the term racism to refer to bias based on race, sociologists use the term credentialism to refer to bias based on credentials: Credentialism is the assumption that some are better than others simply because they have a particular educational credential” (Brinkerhoff et al. 2011, p. 286).
- “Credentialism is closely associated with strategies of “social closure” (to use Max Weber’s expression) that permit social groups to maximize rewards “by restricting access to resources and opportunities to a limited circle of eligibles” (1979, p. 44).
Examples of Credentialism
- PhD snobbery: The perception that an individual with a PhD degree is more intelligent or capable than someone without a PhD.
- Promotion barriers: Credential-based barriers for long-time workers that prevent promotion from within a company to management levels.
- Devaluation of certain types of degrees: The unfounded devaluation of certain degrees and qualifications (particularly distance learning/online degrees) in the eyes of employers.
- Grade inflation in universities: Institutions that have been accused of purposely inflating student grades to falsifying scores in order to maintain elite status in academic communities.
- Undervaluing equivalent qualifications for overseas workers: Migrant workers with valid credentials from their home country do not have their credentials properly recognized in their new host country.
- Filtering job applicants: The requirement for people to have a master’s degree to get a job that clearly doesn’t require that degree, but is used as a way to decrease the number of applications.
- Military credentialism: Hiring practices that favor military family members or veterans over highly qualified American non-military affiliated candidates for U.S. government jobs.
- Credentialism in research publication: Often in tertiary education, value points are given to a scholar’s research resume; these can be determined by the prestige of the journal they publish in, if this journal is international or regional. This and other factors regarding the peer review process are given more importance than the quality of the actual research.
- Accruing awards and qualifications: Awards and recognitions are often given to those who have achieved excellence in their field; those with the most awards and recognitions are favored over those with fewer.
- Residency requirements: In many countries, immigrants must meet certain requirements or credentials in order to be granted residency.
Case Studies of Credentialism
1. Immigration Benchmarks
In many countries, immigrants must meet certain educational credentials in order to be granted residency.
Japan has some of the strictest residency requirements. For example, to obtain a settlement or permanent residence visa, applicants must first demonstrate competency in the Japanese language. They should also have a working knowledge of Japanese society and the ability to earn a living.
In addition, applicants must also have proof of accommodation and have contributed to the national pension plan for a set period of time.
Moreover, applicants must have lived in the country for five years,and complete a large amount of paperwork (which includes a large number of personal questions about your life).
Other examples of countries that are challenging to obtain residency in include: Qatar, China, North Korea, United Arab Emirates, Austria, Finland, and Singapore.
2. Unrecognized Overseas Credentials
Migrant workers with valid credentials from their home country often do not have their credentials properly recognized in their host country, despite the fact they are highly capable and qualified.
Immigrants who possess the same amount of education and experience as citizens in their host country are often employed in a lower role within society due to a lack of credential recognition.
This phenomenon, which is common in developed countries, implies that those with skills obtained overseas will get paid significantly less than their native counterparts with the same set of abilities.
The inability of foreign certifications and qualifications to be fully utilized in the host country is often attributed to an employer’s lack of knowledge of the foreign educational system.
It leads to not only a waste of talent for both the migrant and the host nation but vast inequalities in the job market.
3. Grade Inflation to Achieve Elite Status
Many higher education institutions have been accused of purposely inflating student grades and falsifying scores to maintain elite status in academic communities.
Although these accusations often remain unsubstantiated due to a lack of evidence, the unethical conduct of university departments for overlooking failing students and passing them through the system for the benefit of the department is present at many universities.
Some universities participate in grade inflation to meet the demands of both the students that are paying tremendous tuition costs and the demanding, overly selective employers.
Furthermore, this has become so systemic that universities feel that they need to engage in grade inflation practices simply to maintain their rankings.
Criticism of Credentialism
Credentialism has been met with much criticism from scholars over the years.
1. Focuses on Theory rather than Skillset
One of the main criticisms is that credentialism can lead people to be so focused on getting degrees and certifications that they forget to focus on the actual job-related skills needed to be successful in the field.
In a statement on the value of a college degree, researcher Bollig (2015) reiterates this exact point:
“college education produces value through the production of social capital rather than skills or knowledge”(p. 155).
2. False Meritocracy
Another criticism of credentialism is that it can create a false sense of meritocracy.
By placing emphasis on certain credentials, it can be perceived that those who possess them are more qualified to do a job effectively than those who do not have them.
This is problematic because it overlooks various forms of economic privilege that allow access to higher education.
Brinkerhoff, D. B., Ortega, S. T., & Weitz, R. (2013). Essentials of Sociology (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Bollig, C. (2015). “Is College Worth It?” Arguing for Composition’s Value with the Citizen- Worker. College Composition and Communication, 67(2), 150.
Collins, R. (1979). The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification (Third Printing Used). Academic Press.
Dobos, N. (2015). The Duty to Hire on Merit: Mapping the Terrain. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 50(2), 353–368. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-015-9516-7
Faurer, J. C., & Lopez, L. (2009). Grade Inflation: Too Much Talk, Too Little Action. American Journal of Business Education (AJBE), 2(7), 19–24. https://doi.org/10.19030/ajbe.v2i7.4580
Jasso, G. (2021). Analyzing Migration Restriction Regimes. Frontiers in Sociology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2021.610432
Parkin, M (1979). Class Inequality and Political Order. London: Macmillan
Pecoraro, M., & Wanner, P. (2019). Does the Recognition of Foreign Credentials Decrease the Risk for Immigrants of Being Mismatched in Education or Skills? IMISCOE Research Series, 161–186. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-05671-1_7