A Waste of Talent; A Loss of Opportunity: Mandating Excessive Credentials

Oct 7, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

Governor Stitt recently had a second candidate he wanted to appoint to an administrative position hit a statutory road block. His candidate to head the Oklahoma State Department of Health doesn’t have at least a master’s degree in science. This, and another a mandate requiring an advanced degree for anybody acting as secretary of the Commissioners of the Land Office, were placed in law by the legislature (and, of course, a governor signed the law). Governor Stitt’s candidates for these offices are well-qualified in experience and temperament, but the law dismisses them outright. Thus, the question to ask is not why Governor Stitt isn’t finding people with advanced degrees to head agencies. The right question is, “Why did a law with degree requirements get passed in the first place?”

The answer is that we, as a society, have come to think university-granted degrees are far more valuable than they actually are. The consequence is that college degrees are often demanded in order to qualify for a job when the degrees are not necessary. Indeed, degree requirements might even cause us to think someone is qualified when they are anything but.

Once, while I was in graduate school studying economics, I had an argument with two tenured professors about whether United States silver coins had ever actually consisted of silver. The professors argued vociferously, and quite confidently, that U.S. silver coins had never actually consisted of the element, silver. I’d already had doubts about the true value of an advanced degree, even my own (a PhD in economics from Texas A&M), but that discussion put my doubts into overdrive. For Pete’s sake, one of those professors was an economic historian! The other was a good econometrician (statistician), so his ignorance was a little more understandable. Both were considerably older than I.

[Fact is, our coins now are basically just decorated slugs made up of an amalgam of zinc and copper. But, prior to 1965, dime, quarter, half-dollar, and dollar coins were made of an alloy that was 90 percent silver. In silver, those coins are worth over 10 times their face value, but people still occasionally spend them like today’s slugs. Few circulate today due to Gresham’s Law – and because a lot of Americans are less ignorant than those two economics professors.]

But it’s not just appointive offices where Oklahoma needlessly demands degrees. We require teachers in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten to have bachelor’s degrees in order to be certified, even though mastery of the material should have happened by 5th grade. Shouldn’t a properly structured associate’s degree be enough?

For that matter, there are many state jobs posted by agencies that specify a college degree as a requirement, but that could be filled by individuals with relevant experience even if they have no degree. In a study published last March, the 1889 Institute identified several state agency openings that required unnecessary college degrees; someone with the right experience could competently fill all of them. One was “Resource Coordinator” in the education department to coordinate services for young children and families. Organizational skills can be obtained in a number of ways without college. Lots of information technology positions the state advertises require college degrees, but IT experience and certifications produce very well-qualified candidates.

Credential inflation in our society is now ubiquitous. A Harvard study found that two-thirds of production supervisor job postings demanded a college degree even though less than a fifth of those in such positions had that level of education. In other words, the ability to do these jobs didn’t require the degree. But, in the private sector, private individuals have to live with the costs associated with foolish decisions by hiring managers. In the public sector, taxpayers who involuntarily pay more taxes than necessary, are the ones who bear the costs. All the more reason to make sure state agencies are not requiring excessive credentials in order to fill certain positions.

Excessive credentialing requirements by the state are even more prevalent – and insidious – when it comes to occupational licensing. Oklahoma is the only state that requires someone to have a science degree to become an electrologist (hair removal using electrodes). We effectively require a bachelor’s degree in order to become a funeral director where other states only require an associate’s. Most state do not license perfusionists, but we do, and the nearest place to get the requisite training is in Houston.

The problem with credential inflation is not just the excessive cost for consumers. It’s not just about potential costs for taxpayers. And, it’s not just about higher education institutions being paid to provide nearly needless training that could be more efficiently obtained elsewhere. It’s also about opportunity. How many people with a natural ability and enthusiasm for styling hair can’t because of needless, costly educational requirements? How many people who have computer hobbies on which they’ve spent thousands of hours are prevented from getting an IT job for lack of a college degree, even though they know more than a recent college graduate with a computer science degree?

We have called for the state to conduct a jobs audit to make sure excessive credentials are not being demanded for state jobs. But the state also needs a statute audit to make sure the state is not restricting opportunity in the private sector as well as the public sector. And, where people are concerned about public health and safety (a common excuse for these requirements that generally fails rigorous questioning), then there is a solution for that, one that does not require onerous laws like licensing.

Byron Schlomach is 1889 Institute Director and can be contacted bschlomach@1889institute.org.