Sunday, January 12, 2014


How do you know the level of academic degree to specify for a given job?  

Some cases are relatively obvious.  Doctors and lawyers have relatively clear-cut requirements, although they’re less clear than they once were.  (More accurately, more tasks that used to be the unique province of doctors have moved to other people.  The same is true of lawyers.)  Within academia, accrediting agencies set rules about minimum degree requirements.  The rules aren’t absolute -- some fields are new enough that graduate degrees in them don’t exist -- but they’re pretty strong in well-established fields.  

But in the corporate world, say, or even on the “staff” side of the academic world, how do you know?

The issue came up over the last few days on Twitter.  To what extent is the market premium for college degrees an accurate reflection of employee skills and productivity, and to what extent is it an artifact of poor measurement?  A degree can signify certain specific content knowledge and academic skills, but it can also signify the ability to stick with a program, to navigate requirements, to please difficult adults, and to pony up the resources (or find the resources) to make advanced study possible.  It’s a wildly imperfect indicator of those things -- we all know people without degrees who have those skills, and people with them who don’t -- but it’s better than nothing.  It’s a very rough approximation.  And until recently, “nothing” was the alternative.

The imperfection of the indicator matters when getting that next level of credential -- whether a master’s or a doctorate -- is a long, slow, expensive slog, and the market is tough.  It’s one thing to endure what amounts to a painful and expensive hazing when you at least know that you’ll get into the club.  But when you can do everything right for years on end, at considerable cost, and still face a very real chance of being excluded, it’s a little harder to be a good sport about such a blunt instrument.

Advanced degrees also tend to break along predictable racial and economic lines (though not as much by gender).  When an onerous and relatively arbitrary requirement also carries exclusions by race and class, it’s that much harder to defend.

Within higher ed, of course, it’s difficult to say anything skeptical about credentials.  We’re in the credentialing business, and widespread belief in the value of the degree is part of what allows us the wiggle room within degrees to add the other things (“general education”) that academics tend to value more than the broader culture does.  In my poli sci days, we were all acutely aware that most of our undergraduate majors considered themselves pre-law.  That wasn’t a problem, as long as the demand for pre-law was high and we had the discretion to do what we believed needed to be done.  I’d be curious to see if the precipitous drop in law school applications over the last few years has trickled down to (or was prefigured by a drop in) numbers of undergrad poli sci majors.  

When moving from undergraduate degrees to graduate degrees, though, the “general education” argument falls apart.  When the graduate degrees are focused on practitioners, rather than researchers, it’s even more difficult to justify programs without concrete payoffs.  

A month or so ago, the Atlantic ran a piece about data analytics as a hiring tool.  It raised the spectre of the devaluation of academic degrees, supplanted by a set of indicators of success tailored to each given job.  In a sense, it’s the triumph of standardized testing, except that each job would have its own standard.  If a given job required skills x, y, and z, and you had them, then why should the employer care whether you have a degree or not?

I’m not sold on the prospect, but I can’t entirely discount it, either.  If it happens, higher education will have a serious challenge on its hands.

Right now, of course, the other great function of degrees is signalling.  That’s no small thing in terms of, say, salary schedules.  One of the first elements that goes into determining an appropriate salary for a given position is its educational requirements.  Incumbents can be expected to defend those requirements, if for no other reason than to protect their salaries.  But that’s ultimately a rearguard action.  It may -- will -- delay a shift, but it won’t prevent it.  

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those in HR -- how do you determine degree requirements for jobs?  And should we rethink them?