(Opinion of Bloomberg) — American society needs a radical shift away from credentialism. So it’s a promising sign that Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has announced that thousands of state government jobs in Maryland will no longer require a four-year college degree.
This change will increase opportunity and equity. Perhaps it will even spark a wider movement, including in the private sector.
As an alternative qualification, Maryland will look for “STARs” (Skilled Through Alternative Routes) – those who are “25 years of age or older, are active in the labor market, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and have developed their skills through alternative routes such as community college, apprenticeships, military service, boot camps and mostly on-the-job.”
Not surprisingly, the STAR rating probably gives the greatest opportunity to black people, Latinos, immigrants, and veterans. This will make for a fairer country, but without putting down those who have reached their position through merit. Keep in mind that about two-thirds of Americans don’t have a four-year college degree, so this reform could also make the government more representative and less prone to mistrust and resentment.
Many of the newly reclassified jobs are in administration, customer service and information technology. Those are all areas where people can excel without the four-year college experience. Service in the military, for example, is often a better background. The new policy will also benefit anyone who is very bright but simply has not enjoyed the college experience, or has a disability that makes it difficult or unpleasant to attend college.
Not long ago, very few American jobs, including leadership positions, required a college degree. My father ran one of America’s larger chambers of commerce in the 1970s, and he never entered college, let alone finished it. He was too rebellious and didn’t have the right patience, but he had the people skills that made him a good leader and fundraiser.
Today, a similar applicant for the job probably wouldn’t get any attention. Most of all, this hurts talented young men who may not have an unblemished background – a group that needs more attention.
Very often it is assumed that there is something wrong with an applicant who does not have a university degree. Many competent people therefore rush to get a degree, making this to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a very wasteful practice nonetheless. America needs to step back from this ‘arms race’. There’s no point in ending up with an economy where so many bartenders and taxi drivers have degrees.
Unfortunately, the requirements for degrees are creeping up. A four-year degree is required first, then a graduate degree is required or at least preferred, perhaps an MBA. As someone who has spent his entire life at the academy, I can assure you that PhD students are quite capable of preaching nonsense – and academics are by no means effective administrators or collaborators. Unfortunately, I find the nonprofit sector, with its lack of relatively objective profit-and-loss measures, to be the worst when it comes to credentialism and the push for advanced degrees.
On average, more education is likely associated with better job performance – but there are many exceptions. If American society wants to increase opportunities for everyone, it must work harder to spot those exceptions and act on that knowledge. In a world where so much information and so many different forms of certification are available, there are far better ways to assess a candidate than asking the binary question of whether they have a four-year degree.
This move against credentialism is all the more necessary because of the rise of technology. Many of the top names in technology or crypto are dropouts and without degrees. Sure, those aren’t the kind of people the Maryland government is likely to hire. But there are many people in tech, lower on the pay scale, who haven’t invested much in formal degrees, partly because they didn’t see their professional relevance. For many tech jobs, a personal GitHub page is far more important.
Hogan’s reform is also an opportunity for a US government to gain first-mover advantage and shine as a policy entrepreneur. The state of Maryland only employs about 38,000 people, and this dictate probably applies to about half of all jobs. But every social movement has to start somewhere. Perhaps this idea will then spread to Missouri, where neither the governor nor the lieutenant governor have a four-year college degree.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”
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