Credentialism is so out of control in America that even the NYT has noticed. Morris Kleiner reports that state governments are increasingly requiring individuals to obtain licenses before entering professions of all kinds, from manicurist to florist. These laws are ostensibly designed to make sure only qualified individuals enter these professions, because apparently only a unwieldy government bureaucracy can protect us from the dangers of ugly floral arrangements and rogue parking attendants. But their effect is much different:
In the 1970s, about 10 percent of individuals who worked had to have licenses, but by 2008, almost 30 percent of the work force needed them.
With this explosion of licensing laws has come a national patchwork of stealth regulation that has, among other things, restricted labor markets, innovation and worker mobility. There is a role for government in protecting the public from incompetent or unscrupulous service providers, but there is little reason for math teachers to be relicensed every time they move from one state to another. These requirements put additional burdens on teachers that reduce the ability of good teachers to find work and schools to find good teachers.
As the piece goes on to note, credentialism raises incomes for licensed professionals, who then charge more for their services. Richer consumers can keep up with rising costs, but poorer ones are increasingly unable to afford these services. And though licensing laws do raise incomes for protected providers, they also close off the field to young Americans or outsiders looking for work. They have thus drawn bipartisan opposition, but so far no coalition has been able to stop the trend from continuing.
Perhaps the reason they’ve had so little success is that the credentialing mindset is so deeply ingrained in our entire educational and vocational system. Reliance on bachelor’s degrees (and increasingly master’s degrees as well) as a sorting mechanism for many jobs imposes huge burdens on young people, and in many cases serves no rational purpose other than to feed the academic beast. Rent-seeking professional groups are choking the American economy by erecting barriers to entry that burden everyone else, and it needs to stop.