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The Fatuity of Credentialing

Everyone and Everything

Harold Orlans

Senior Research Associate

National Academy of Public Administration Foundation

A paper prepared for
panel discussion on

"Credentialing of Experience"
at the October 9-11, 1974
American Council on Education
meting in San Diego.

(August 1974)

It is just and right to employ people in accordance with their ability and experience, not the letters after their name or the certificates in their files. Yet the world is not an entirely just place and those credentials--Ph.D., M.D., B.Sc., A.S., and so forth--are indispensable for many jobs and, for many others, can tip the balance toward the lettered applicant. Napoleon observed that an army could be run with medals; men die for a trinket. Americans are not so different when it comes to their own symbols of worth. It generally helps and seldom hurts to have the right letters after your name. If that were not the case, degree credit enrollments would be much reduced (as was attendance at the American Museum of Natural History when public toilets opened nearby).

In our highly mobile, egalitarian society, where birthplace, class, and education are not immediately evident from a person's appearance and speech (as they are, or were, in Britain), academic credentials serve significant economic and social functions. Should they not, then, be more readily dispensed not only by academic institutions but by new examining bodies? If the credential that certifies graduation is indeed satisfactory evidence that the graduate is qualified to do certain kinds of work--to type or to teach, design a house, write a letter or prescription or at least add and spell correctly--should it not be given, gratis or for a fee, to anyone else who demonstrates that he can do the same thing? And if a license to practice a profession or trade is issued to anyone who passes a state examination, should not anyone be eligible to take that examination, regardless of his formal educational preparation?

Sovernment is supposed to treat all individuals alike

and nondiscriminatorily. It should regulate entry te ay business, trade, occupation, or profession ly to protect the public health and safety. A society which prizes parsmal freedom and ostensibly prizes competitive enterprise should remove any licensing barriers to safe and competent practice, especially in lucrative professions providing expensive services in short supply. Should that be done by licensing the graduates of foreign medical schools and authorizing doctors licensed in one state and nation to practice in another? Should practical nurses be used to ease the shortage of registered nurses; marriage counsellors, that of clinical psychologists; and psychologists, that of psychiatrists by broadening the scope of the work they are permitted to do by law and private regula:ion, and are reimbursed for by insurance companies and government programs, In principle, yes. In practice, we are ensnared by

regulations designed to protect us. The byzantine politics of the professions, their power over state licensing boards and examinations, and the difficulty of isolating the technical qualifications necessary for competent practice from those which

serve to maintain the monopoly and income of established

practitioners make modest reform more likely than transformation of the licensing system. We cannot leap out of history by an appeal to reason. Tests do not write themselves; they are prepared by members of the very profession whose performance we wish to define objectively and democratically, so that a qualified spaniel could practice medicine. Laymen are not competent to intrude and

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it is difficult for professional men to distinguish standards which serve the public interest from those which serve their own. Hence, 1

we are all subject to The Tyranny of the Experts.

Technical and social standards of performance cannot be

cleanly separated.

For example, knowledge of the language--and not just a crude but a sensitive knowledge--is important to clinical practice in medicine, psychiatry, psychology, management consulting, or law. Client satisfaction and the quality of service are plainly dependent on the practitioner's perceptiveness, manner, and conduct. Are such matters relevant to initial licensure or subsequent


In principle, no, when they reflect "purely" social standards with discriminatory consequences-as distinct from those, like legal and ethical standards, which apply equally to all candidates. In practice, however, social and technical standards can be inseparably intertwined and those which prevail inevitably represent the outlook of the men who set them. If Philippine doctors and black plumbers wrote the licensing examinations for doctors and plumbers, more Philippine and black applicants would presumably

pass them.

The social and political dimension of performance

requirements is evident in the double standard applied by licensing laws to new applicants, on the one hand, and, on the other, to established practitioners exempted under grandfather clauses. James Shannon, when director of the National Institutes of Health, once charged that many doctors were "licensed to kill" because, woefully out of touch with recent medical developments, they could misdiagnose and mistreat patients, with lethal results.


The requirement of

continuing education for relicensure constitutes a recognition of

the problem. It would be fully dealt with if all licensees were

reexamined every five years and had to receive the same score


on the same tests as new applicants. If that happened, many

older and influential men might lose their license--or the passing score might have to be lowered. Since either course, would reduce the dominance of established practitioners, neither is likely to


The issuance of academic credentials for knowledge or ability acquired without the normal term of academic servitude is increasingly fashionable. It is stodgy and futile to flout fashion,

the more so when it is just to many individuals and rewarding or indispensable to many institutions.

Nonetheless, its dangers should

be more fully discussed and more directly confronted. Among them are the threat to educational standards, the hazards and limitations of excessive reliance on examinations, and the debasement of the currency of credentials by overprinting.

A rising volume of college credit is being offered to enrollees for "knowledge" or "experience" attested or untested by examination and for "work experience" and "nontraditional" programs taken by registered students. External degree programs and "universities without walls" are expanding; regional "credit banks," educational "passports," "output measures, and the assessment of "experiential learning" are being explored. The approaches lean heavily on the frail reed of "scientific" measurement and share the social sciences' proclivity to cloak, romanticize, or sterilize and, thereby, distort humdrum reality. Colleges and

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