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‘Educationism’ And The Deplorables

people in caps and gowns moving their tassles

Many well-educated people consider themselves more tolerant and inclusive than others in society. They might even refer to those others as “deplorables.”

If that does not sound particularly tolerant to you, there is now some academic research to back you up.

A report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, published in November, coined the term “educationism” to describe pervasive bias against individuals who are relatively less educated. Of course, this idea is not entirely new – it has been discussed by sociologists since at least the 1980s and is closely tied to prejudices related to class. But, as reported by the BBC, the new study showed that both highly and lesser-educated subjects demonstrated a bias in favor of people who have attained higher levels of education.

This bias is especially pernicious because, unlike gender or race, education level often seems to be a characteristic individuals can determine for themselves. And while anyone who stops to reflect can see that this view vastly oversimplifies reality, bias is often accompanied by a failure to stop and reflect.

Like all prejudices, educationism is a heuristic – a mental shortcut through which we make assumptions. We give credit to people who possess advanced degrees for being wise as well as smart, although wisdom is not usually a prerequisite for such attainment. At the same time, we can be dismissive of people and viewpoints with which we would rather not engage, on the grounds that those perspectives are based mainly in ignorance rather than life experience.

I plead guilty to having committed educationism. Until recently, an applicant needed a bachelor’s degree merely to get a full-time job as an administrative associate in my company. At the entry level, that job consists largely of answering telephones, booking travel arrangements, and preparing and sorting correspondence. At one time I justified that requirement by believing that higher education created space for professional growth inside the company. And it is true that many of our administrative associates have progressed into demanding management positions.

But with a few exceptions, most of that professional growth was fueled by knowledge and skills these individuals gained after they started working for my company, not at school. An undergraduate degree in Italian or women’s studies provides little foundation for a later management career in human resources or information technology. Our associates demonstrated their competence and motivation when they came to work for us; they developed additional skills through self-study and on-the-job training. We then recognized those skills and promoted them accordingly.

Many educators, among others, would surely argue that college taught these individuals how to think and learn for themselves. I am increasingly skeptical, as I become more convinced that faculties today are more invested in teaching students what to think, rather than how. If we consider this trend in conjunction with the amount of time and money it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree, and the number of occupations and employers who demand that degree, it becomes clear that higher education can create barriers for some even as it opens opportunities for others. The ones most apt to benefit are those who already belong to the educated class that can afford to buy, and demand, education for its young people.

So I stopped requiring a bachelor’s degree for entry-level administrative jobs. I still require it for finance-specific jobs in our financial planning practice, but a bachelor’s in psychology or journalism wouldn’t qualify anyone for one of those positions absent additional training anyway. To get into this line of work myself, I had to add an MBA in accounting to my undergraduate journalism degree.

Over the past couple of decades, the accounting industry and its trade group, the AICPA, convinced every U.S. jurisdiction except the Virgin Islands to demand not just a bachelor’s degree, but an additional 30 semester hours (150 semester hours total) for new applicants to earn their CPA licenses. Tellingly, not a single accountant who already held a license was required to go back to school, despite the predictable blather about the increasing intellectual demands of the profession requiring more education. The requirement served as a pure barrier to entry and a subsidy to academic programs in accounting. Not surprisingly, the profession has since struggled to find enough qualified people to fill entry-level jobs. Meanwhile, to my knowledge, no clients have ever claimed to have been injured because the grandfathered accountant who advised them held no more than a bachelor’s degree.

In another area in which I have personal experience, to earn the privately issued credential of Certified Financial Planner™, candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree. It can be in any subject. They also must complete a seven-course program of study and pass a reasonably challenging exam.

So consider two paraprofessionals working in a financial planning firm. One holds a bachelor’s degree in, say, philosophy; the other did not complete college. They may do the same work, get the same on-the-job training, even take the same financial planning courses and pass the same exam. But only one can secure the title, the prestige and the financial opportunities that come with holding the CFP® credential, although her clients are unlikely to get much benefit from the work she did to earn her philosophy degree. The other may have run a business, raised a family (no small contributor to being a good personal financial adviser) or worked three waitressing jobs to put a spouse through school. It doesn’t matter. There is no GED at the university level. This is unfortunate, because that stranded paraprofessional probably has perspectives on life and society that could make her advice very helpful to a segment of society that shares some of her experiences.

Affirmative action can mitigate the effects of educational of bias, but it only works for groups to which it is targeted, and then only upon the individuals within those groups who are affirmatively acted upon. It isn’t a good answer. Researchers have suggested other changes, including modifications to standardized tests and higher educator expectations, since higher expectations have been shown to lead to increased performance. Regardless of the strategy or strategies we pursue, however, it is clear that education level bias will not vanish anytime soon.

“Educationism” is alive and well, among the more- as well as the less-educated; now it has been given a name. Whatever we call it, it limits the potential of good people who could reach higher if we let them. And that’s truly deplorable.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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