Citing his previous studies of other ritualized credential systems that emerged in the ancient Chinese civil service and in other cultures around the world, Collins outlined a common pattern in which dominant social groups use a spiral of credentials to maintain elite control over the choicest occupations. In this way, Collins says, education can hold out the promise of meritocratic advancement, when in fact the spiraling credential requirements increasingly favor those with the “cultural capital” to succeed in school and the family income that permits them to leave the workplace for additional schooling. The end result would have to be stagnating social mobility, he says, which is borne out by a recent study by researchers at the London School of Economics. Among children born between 1958 and 1970, the study says, rates of “cross-generational mobility” in the U.S. and U.K. have trailed those of Canada, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. In the U.S., “this implies that the big expansion in university participation has tended to benefit children from affluent families more and thus reinforced immobility across generations.”

Medicine, the highest paying of the professions, is a case in point. It would be more rational, more efficient and more equitable, Collins reasoned, if young people wishing to become medical doctors were to start out as medical orderlies and work their way up the ranks to doctor, with perhaps two years of medical education along the way. Instead, medical schools admit candidates who have demonstrated proficiency in testing and schooling, whether or not they have a particular aptitude for medicine. “As it stands,” Collins wrote, “American medical training is attached at the end of a very long and expensive education that keeps the supply of physicians low and their incomes and social backgrounds very high.”

Seated in his apartment overlooking Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, the mild-mannered Collins recalls that he once had a seat on a medical school admissions board in California, and he came across the application of a young man who had been an Army medic in Vietnam: “I said, ‘This guy has actually practiced medicine, he’s stitching up people on the battlefield. There’s no doubt that this person could be a doctor.’ But they said no, he wasn’t academically distinguished enough.” Most professions, from law and engineering to teaching and social work, have emulated the medical model by requiring extended academic study and credentials while persuading lawmakers to abolish competing forms of on-the-job training.

That criticism makes Dr. Stanley Goldfarb bristle a bit. “We had apprenticeship without the formal structures of medical education 100 years ago and it was a disaster,” says Goldfarb, associate dean of curriculum at Penn’s School of Medicine. Four-year residencies, he says, which follow four years of medical school, now serve as apprenticeships, but only after medical students are academically well grounded. “After all, it is a scientific discipline, and you do have to master a body of science. It’s one thing to be a technician and to do certain tasks in medicine. It’s another thing to be able to go out to the public and say, ‘I’m capable of keeping up with the most modern techniques in your care.’” Every medical school understands the need for a more diverse socioeconomic student population, he says, claiming that medicine, more than most professions, looks beyond mere academic achievement in selecting future members of the field. Says Goldfarb, “You have to serve the entire spectrum of the American population, and you can’t just have white males as the only output of your medical schools. Everyone tries to make a concerted effort on this.”

Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School, sees the credentials race as a natural response to the current job market where desirable employment opportunities are scarce. The spiral in stated job requirements, he says, “has something to do with the fact that if you could hire someone with more education, why wouldn’t you?” In the long term, Cappelli says Berg’s and Collins’ theories, while valuable, betray a certain sociological bias in assuming that society is a zero-sum game. “Economists have their own bias,” he notes. “My own sense is that the economists are probably more blind on this one than the sociologists are. Economists don’t even think there’s any tradeoff. They assume that if everybody had college degrees, and people with college degrees make more money, then ergo everybody would be better off.”

David Labaree C’73 G’73 Gr’83 is one of a growing number of educators who have come to see a host of detrimental effects caused by credentialism on university campuses. “[Berg and Collins] come at the same problem from different angles, which is interesting,” says Labaree, an education professor at Stanford University. “They both point to the disconnect between form and substance in education, but one’s looking at it much more as a function of the historical development of stratification and the protection of upper middle-class privilege. The other is looking at it more from the dysfunctionality within the economy and within business.”

Labaree’s 1997 book, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education, cited his indebtedness to Berg, with whom he studied at Penn, and Collins, whose theory on credentialing provided the underpinning of his argument. “In U.S. schools,” he wrote, “the relentless urge to get ahead has undermined the opportunity to get an education.” As college degrees have become more common, top-tier universities have been flooded with applicants seeking a more distinctive credential. The result, says Labaree, is college as a form of conspicuous consumption.

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FEATURE: Failing Grades
By Noel Weyrich

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