Frank on Phony Credentials
By Bryan Caplan
Thomas Frank’s essay on phony credentials is engaging throughout. Lead-in:
Americans have figured out that universities exist in order to man
the gates of social class, and we pay our princely tuition rates in
order to obtain just one thing: the degree, the golden ticket, the
The question that naturally follows is: Given the rigged, rotten nature
of the higher-ed game, why would self-interested actors continue to play
by the rules? The answer, to a surprising extent, is that they don’t.
Earlier this year, the CEO of Yahoo! quit when it was discovered that his degree in computer science was bogus. In 2006, the CEO of RadioShack stepped down amid a similar scandal–he had exaggerated his accomplishments at a California Bible college. And in 2002, the CEO of Bausch + Lomb admitted
that the MBA attributed to him in a corporate press release was
nonexistent. (The company’s share price plummeted on the dreadful news.)
Then there are examples from government, like the high-ranking former official in the Department of Homeland Security
who loved to make her underlings address her as “Doctor,” in
recognition of the advanced degree she had acquired from a prominent
diploma mill. Her exposure led to a 2004 study by the General Accounting
Office that scoured federal agencies for the alumni of just three
diploma mills–three out of the hundreds of unaccredited Web-based
enterprises that will issue you a degree in recognition of what they
call “life experience.” The GAO caught 463 offenders, more than half of them in the Defense Department.
One might assume that academia is practiced at sniffing out counterfeit
degrees. But if anything, prestigious universities seem even more prone
to dupery than other institutions. In April, the vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education was forced out after it was revealed that he had never earned the Ph.D. listed on his résumé. Last year, two top officials at Bishop State Community College in Alabama also turned out to have dubious doctorates. In 2010, a senior vice president at Texas A&M lost
his job for faking both a master’s and a doctorate. (He also garnished
his CV with a fiction about having been a Navy SEAL.) And in what may be
the most satisfying irony to come our way in many years, the Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology— the very person responsible for assessing academic credentials and, in fact, the author of a book of advice for college-bound students–confessed in 2007 that each of her advanced degrees was strictly imaginary.
Somewhere near the conclusion of The Case Against Education, I plan to place a section called “Doubts About Signaling.” One of my chief doubts: “If employers value educational signals so much, why are they so willing to believe whatever candidates claim about their signals?” My least bad answer is that while telling an isolated lie comes easily to human beings, most human beings are bad at living a lie. If you fabricate credentials to get a job, doctoring your resume is the easy part. The challenge: You have to construct an alternate life history, and carefully segregate everyone you’re lying to from everyone who knows better for the rest of your career. In short, you need the rare skills of a spy.
Not satisfied? The standard human capital story suffers an analogous doubt: “If employers value academic skills so much, why are they so willing to believe whatever candidates tell them about their skills?” The world of work is weird, so no scrupulously mundane story is going to fit the facts.