Credential inflation

Credential 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 monetary 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.[1][2] [3][4][5][6]



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.[7]

Another indicator of credential inflation is the relative decline in the wage differential between those with college degrees and those with only high school diplomas.[8] Jobs that were open to high school graduates a century ago now routinely require not just a bachelor's degree, but a master's degree as well—without an appreciable change in required skills.

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.[9]


The causes of credential inflation are not well understood; however, it is thought to be the result of ever-expanding access to higher education and the overproduction of degrees, the proliferation of formal degree requirements for gainful employment (due to the expansion of credential markets), the self-interest of college presidents and administrators (who are better off expanding their institutions), and an ever increasing need for obtaining a competitive edge in the labor market, all working together to create an expansionary inflation spiral.[10][11]

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.[12] 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 implicated in a long list of ills that plague American higher education, it remains largely ignored by policy makers and academics.[13]

It has also been widely noted that the credential inflation spiral is accelerating, with far-ranging negative consequences.[3][8][14]

Problems attributed to credential inflation

Among the problems in higher education that have been attributed to credential inflation, are:

  • Climbing college tuition and fees (colleges charge what the credential markets will bear); mounting burdens of student debt (delays in marrying and starting families, resulting in smaller families, and higher levels of birth defects);[15][16]
  • Shallow, credential-driven student learning in college courses; disengaged students; the loss of degree-value in the job market; failed curricular reforms; perennial failed attempts at teacher education reform.[17]
  • Hyper-competitive college admissions and soaring numbers of applicants for desirable upper-echelon schools (as growing access at the bottom drives competition at the top of the heap); the appearance of entrance-exam preparation schools and college admissions consultants[citation needed]
  • Increases in high school dropout rates and the overall devaluation of high school diplomas; more wasted years in graduate school (Ivar Berg famously called them “aging vats”)[18]
  • Raids on the wall of separation between secondary and postsecondary education that took over a century to establish (through the awarding of college credit for Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, etc., courses given at local high schools);[citation needed]
  • Overworked faculty, crowded lecture halls, impersonal courses, a standing army of poorly paid part-time adjunct professors; a corporate culture of rampant cynicism and the loss of faith, generally, in higher education; cheating and dishonesty of all kinds[citation needed]
  • The loss of the capacity to innovate; stifled reform and other manifestations of increased institutional path-dependence.
  • Grade inflation [7]

See also


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Randall Collins, 1998, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Pp. 580 - 582.
  3. ^ a b Van de Werfhorst and Anderson, "Social Background, Credential Inflation and Educational Strategies," Acta Sociologica (Dec 2005) 48 (4): 321-340.
  4. ^ Ronald P. Dore, 1976. The Diploma Disease: Education, Qualification, and Development. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ John W. Chaffee, 1985. The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. ^ a b 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.
  8. ^ a b David Wessel, Why It Takes a Doctorate To Beat Inflation, Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2006, page A2.
  9. ^ 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 [1]
  10. ^ Randall Collins, 1979. The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press. [2]
  11. ^ David K. Brown, “The Social Sources of Educational Credentialism: Status Cultures, Labor Markets, and Organizations,” Sociology of Education, Extra Issue (2001): 19-34.
  12. ^ David F. Labaree, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education, Yale University Press (1997).
  13. ^ Randall Collins, The Dirty Little Secret of Credential Inflation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 27, 2002, Volume 49, Issue 5, Page B20 [3]. See also comments by George Leef, The Problem of Credential Inflation, Clarion Call No. 182, November 2, 2002 [4]
  14. ^ Randall Collins, 1979. The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press [5]
  15. ^ Mayor Richard Daley, The Chicago Sun-Times, October 23, 2007, page 23
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Noel Weyrich, Failing Grades, The Pennsylvania Gazette, March/April 2006 [6]

External links

  • Noel Weyrich, Failing Grades, The Pennsylvania Gazette, March/April 2006 [7].
  • Gary North, The Ph.D. Glut Revisited, January 24, 2006 [8]
  • Randall Collins, The Dirty Little Secret of Credential Inflation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 27, 2002, Volume 49, Issue 5, Page B20 [9]
  • Randall Collins, The Credential Society. New York: Academic Press, 1979, pp. 191–204. [10]
  • George Leef, The Overselling of Higher Education, September 5, 2006 [11]
  • Lowell Gallaway, The Supreme Court and the Inflation of Educational Credentials: Impact of Griggs examined. Clarion Call, November 9, 2006 [12]

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