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MURRAY: Credentialism Should Be a Bipartisan Issue

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, did all Pennsylvanians a favor in January by making 92 percent of state government jobs open to anyone without a four-year college degree. This is a significant step in fighting the curse of “credentialism” – the widely held belief that you can’t do certain jobs unless you have certain certificates or degrees. There are good reasons why fighting credentialism should be a bipartisan issue.

The first reason stares many people in the face every month – the cost of college debt. The cost of college has exploded since the 1980s and has seen sharp increases in the last 20 years. According to U.S. News and World Report, in-state tuition at public universities, generally the most affordable option, has risen by 175 percent in nominal terms since 2003. Out-of-state tuition is now close to $30,000 on average. Private university fees are eye-watering.

And it’s not just tuition – room and board and other expenses add to the total cost, which means only the wealthiest parents can afford to put more than one child through school out of pocket. Working your way through college is now virtually impossible, given the cost.

That means students need to go into debt to finance the cost of their credential. That’s been expensive enough in recent decades when costs have risen so much. Today, high inflation brings much higher interest rates, even with a parent co-signing, which means students will have to pay back more and more as they enter the workforce.

To take some ballpark numbers, a student borrowing $20,000 a year to pay for tuition and expenses, at 6 percent interest for ten years, will need to pay over $200 a month. Now multiply that by four for the length of the degree, and it quickly becomes apparent that many students will be graduating with substantial payment burdens. This is why eliminating college debt has become a popular demand among progressive voters.

That debt has significant effects on the economy. Not only does it put the dream of home ownership off the table for graduates until their 30s, but it also leaves people with less disposable income to spend on local businesses. This should concern progressives and conservatives alike.

Progressives have historically been concerned about the lack of opportunity for the underprivileged. The increased levels of debt necessary for college form an ever-increasing barrier to lower-income young people thinking about college.

Meanwhile, credential requirements themselves reduce opportunity. A 2014 survey found that only 19 percent of people working as executive assistants had college degrees but that 65 percent of job listings required them. There are many reasons for this, including a Supreme Court case from 1971 that banned general aptitude tests as discriminatory, but its effects can be seen on any job board.

Conservatives have another reason to be suspicious of anything that encourages four-year college attendance. There is growing evidence of an anti-conservative monoculture at colleges, one that is exacerbated by the culture of what the authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind” call safetyism – the desire to protect students from “harmful” ideas (the number of administrators required by this mindset is one reason for swelling costs).

So, even if conservatives disagree with progressives on debt elimination and progressives disagree with conservatives over campus culture, they can surely both agree that not everyone needs to go to college.

Defeating credentialism will come with costs. Rather than outsourcing testing of critical thinking and the like to college examiners, hiring managers will need to develop new and non-discriminatory ways of assessing the skills and aptitudes of potential workers. (As a former human resource professional, I am aware that many people think the job has little worth, so perhaps my former colleagues should treat this as a professional opportunity!)

Yet whatever the increased cost to HR departments and firms, it is unlikely to rival the current massive cost of credentialism in terms of debt, culture, and opportunity. Governors of both parties across the nation should follow Gov. Shapiro’s lead.

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