Sunday, October 20, 2019
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


Credential inflation: what will your master’s be worth?

There was a time when a bachelor of arts would guarantee you a decent job. Baby boomers with BAs were…


There was a time when a bachelor of arts would guarantee you a decent job. Baby boomers with BAs were snatched up by employers. If you could endure the rigours of academia, you could easily learn most white-collar jobs. A BA was a one-way ticket up the social ladder. It isn’t anymore.

For today’s employer, the letters BA on your resumé mean about as much as having spelled your name correctly. That’s because the job market is flooded with BAs, says Director of UBC Career Services, Howie Outerbridge.

An explosion in student loans and grant money since the mid-90s has meant that most Canadians can afford university. Even C-students are admitted to university if they apply to the right schools. Low standards allow almost everyone to graduate. According to Maclean’s, 82% of UBC students will finish. The supply of BAs is increasing precipitously. The quality of BA graduates is decreasing just as fast. A BA simply isn’t worth much as a credential anymore.

While we’re theoretically here to enrich ourselves through knowledge, the majority of students who enrol in undergraduate degrees – and increasingly master’s programs – are here to enrich themselves financially. Most students believe that it’s all about getting in, getting a credential and getting out.

Does that mean we should all enrol in master’s programs if we want to compete for prized careers? Career coach Tedra Osell believes that depends on the degree. In her blog entry today, she explained that if you’re in it for the high-paying job, there are only a few master’s degrees that are really worth it right now. Osell suggests environmental engineering, social work or public policy. Avoid MBAs and humanities, she suggests. Howie Outerbridge also thinks MBAs are out of style while he says environmental degrees are in high demand.

Outerbridge says any graduate degree will help you stand out from the flood of BAs, so long as it’s something you’re interested in. And that should translate into more money in the long run.

But master’s programs can only help differentiate the truly interested and hard working if our society inoculates them from “credential inflation” (also known as diploma disease.)

The term “credential inflation,” describes a societal condition where education becomes “merely a ritualistic process of accumulating qualifications.” Employers see credentials as evidence that you work hard and excel. That causes us to see credentials as the route to a high-paying job. This creates a society where the focus is on accumulating credentials, rather than working hard or learning skills. So while we needed a BA in the sixties to prove we were a better candidate than a high school graduate, career counsellors are now telling us that we need an MA to stand out from all the BAs.

For those idealists who think education is inherently worthwhile, the classrooms are already ruined by those who are simply there for a credential. From my first day at Guelph, I noticed this problem. In my dorm was a pair of inseparable girls with platinum blonde hair and twin blue Acuras. They loathed education and did as little school work as possible. They would have gone to Western to find husbands they said, but they didn’t get in. Their degree? You guessed it: BA in psychology. The spray-tan sisters were in pursuit of upper-middle class lifestyles, not an educational enlightenment. They wanted to be part of a class that requires credentials. They have achieved it. According to Facebook, both have graduated with BAs and one has already netted a rich husband.

The saddest thing is not that these bimbos wasted space in dormitories and classrooms. It’s not that professors had to dumb down their lessons in order for them to pass. It’s not the hours I spent in my first year psych seminar listening to their opinions on articles they never read. The sad thing is that both girls were quite capable of learning, but no one had ever dared fail them! An education system that lets everyone pass is an education system that fails everyone. They learned nothing in university while getting in the way of those who actually wanted to learn.

In an ideal world, everyone would work hard and get something valuable out of their education. In the real world, those of us who work hard should at least be rewarded with a distinguishing credential.

Will master’s programs succumb to diploma disease (credential inflation) like undergraduate education has? The quantity of master’s students has certainly increased. There are 43% more graduate students at UBC today than there were ten years ago. Whether quality can be maintained remains to be seen.

But the letters MA are certainly worth less than they used to be. Perhaps master’s degrees should only be granted to those who have mastered a certain subject. Either way, the spray-tan twins need not apply.