Education inflation -The PhD fallacy

In what will probably heat the academic blogs for a while, the Dean of Admissions at MIT resigned yesterday.

And she resigned for that most horrible of academic crimes, faking her credentials. According to the Harvard Crimson

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s dean of admissions, Marilee Jones, resigned today and admitted to the ultimate sin of her profession: lying on an application.

Jones, a 28-year veteran of the admissions office, listed degrees on her resume from three schools in upstate New York but did not earn any of them, an MIT spokeswoman said. The schools were Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Albany Medical College, and Union College.

In a prepared statement, Jones said she had “misled the Institute about my academic credentials” in applying for her first job at the school in 1979, and “did not have the courage to correct my resume when I applied for my current job or at any time since.” She was appointed to lead the admissions office in 1998.

There are a couple of points I’d like to make here.

First, it was wrong for her to have faked her credentials. It is like Michael Deutsch, a scandal just waiting to happen. It is doubly wrong for MIT not to have ever checked anything. That seems to be a fool-me-once-shame-on-you, -fool-me-twice-shame-on-me situation.

But I think this points out something far more important. It brings up the assumed usefulness of degrees in general.

I seriously doubt that Jones would have been considered for the position she held without the misinformation she had given. And according the accounts I’ve been reading this morning, she wasn’t just good at her job, she was great at her job.

From her (likely soon to reworked) biography at MIT,

Marilee Jones is Dean of Admissions at MIT. A scientist by training, she joined the MIT Admissions Office in 1979 to lead the recruitment efforts for women. She has served on many national professional boards including the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), the College Board and the Women in Engineering Programs Advisory Network. Marilee is the recipient of MIT’s highest award for administrators, the ‘MIT Excellence Award for Leading Change’, as well as the ‘Gordon Y. Billard Award’ and the Dean for Undergraduate Education Infinite Mile Award for Leadership.

As a national spokesperson on the changes in today’s college admissions climate, speaking out against the pressures it induces in both students and parents, she has been featured on CBS, National Public Radio and profiled in USA Today, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. She is the co-author of the book, “Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond.”

And most importantly, Marilee has just gone through the college admissions process with her daughter, and sees things in a whole new light… [my emphasis]

She was apparently nationally acclaimed to be an excellent leader and very well liked. The New York Times

At M.I.T., where Ms. Jones has been widely admired, almost revered, for her humor, outspokenness and common sense, faculty and students alike appeared saddened, and shocked.

“It was surprising,” said Mike Hurley, a freshman chemistry student. “Everyone who was admitted here probably knows her, at least her name.” Mr. Hurley added that the admissions office was unusually accessible, with Ms. Jones’s “bright” personality and blogs for incoming students. “Whenever someone’s integrity is questioned, it sets a bad example,” he said, “but I feel like the students can get past that and look at what she’s done for us as a whole.”

“I feel like she’s irreplaceable,” said Rachel Ellman, a 21-year-old who studies aerospace engineering.

From the WSJ coverage comes the following quote,

“It’s amazing that she only spent that much time in college. She’s really smart,” said Michael Behnke, the admissions dean at the University of Chicago and Ms. Jones’s predecessor at MIT. “She’s really been a leader in the profession. She was a leader when she worked for me. Very creative. Obviously, too creative,” he said.

Behnke makes the same incorrect and foolish assumption that is causing these kinds of scandals. You go to college and get a degree if you are smart.

No Mr. Behnke – I beg to differ. No Mr. Behnke – that is bullshit!

You go to college and get a degree if either A) you have the will and ability to do the work or if B) your parents have the money, control and willpower to force you through it. You might fail to get a degree if you lack money, determination, or perhaps have a fit of depression at an unfortunate time. Lot’s of reasons.

I am continually amazed at the number of well educated people who fall for educated=smart fallacy.

It is not a shame that Jones didn’t get advanced degrees. It is a shame that she needed one.

As a matter of fact, how many people have advanced degrees that seem to be utterly and totally incompetent? Aren’t there enough examples in current and former administration officials to underline that point: Paul Wolfowitz (PhD political science, University of Chicago); Douglas Feith (J.D. Georgetown University Law Center/A.B. Harvard College); Alberto Gonzales (Harvard Law School)?

Somewhere along the line the idea behind education got sidetracked from being about knowledge to the race for the magical piece of paper to hang on the wall. I’ve got some bad news for you sunshine. Unless you go into academia or research, it’s just about the piece of paper.

Most people who get degrees, don’t go into the areas where they were working while learning. Education inflation requires the production of some kind of academic credentials because – well – because everyone else has one.

The Pew Research Center released a poll two weeks ago banishing the myth that better education automatically means more knowledgeable citizens.

Since the late 1980s, the emergence of 24-hour cable news as a dominant news source and the explosive growth of the internet have led to major changes in the American public’s news habits. But a new nationwide survey finds that the coaxial and digital revolutions and attendant changes in news audience behaviors have had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs.

On average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago. The new survey includes nine questions that are either identical or roughly comparable to questions asked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 2007, somewhat fewer were able to name their governor, the vice president, and the president of Russia, but more respondents than in the earlier era gave correct answers to questions pertaining to national politics.pew-what-americans-know-1989-2007.jpg
Aside from news media use, demographic characteristics, especially education, continue to be strongly associated with how much Americans know about the larger world. However, despite the fact that education levels have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, public knowledge has not increased accordingly. [my emphasis]

Read that again;. “despite the fact education levels have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, public knowledge has not increased accordingly.” Look at the data. This poll concentrated on political views and if I weren’t in the middle of this rant, I could dredge up similar statistics for science knowledge, history, geography and just about anything else including, I am sure, knowledge about the current American Idol series.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a correlation between schooling and knowledge. But the correlation is starting to change not because the American and international systems of education are falling apart, but because different people are being forced to get educations that have little meaning and arguably less use. Think about the credentials Jones forged (chemistry and biology) and her real work.

Academia and industry needs to finally realise that the educated are just that – educated. Education is not necessarily smart. Educated is not necessarily competent. Educated is not necessarily honest.

Most people don’t need nor will ever used the education they receive in the form it is given.

Perhaps it is time to finally abandon that idea and accept that the traditional concept of university education is flawed. Perhaps it is time to move toward a apprentice training program for areas like business, administration and similar fields.

Not because the academic qualifications aren’t important. They are. They are far too critically important to be made irrelevant by to education inflation.

Was it right for Jones to lie? No. But remember; although she was more than qualified to do the work, she would have never been considered for the job if she hadn’t have lied.

Remember that while sharpening the pitchforks and lighting the torches.

Hat Tip: Ralph E. Luker/ CLIOPATRIA)

3 comments so far

  1. gingermiss on

    I think you bring up some salient points.

    There’s a fine line between appropriate training and useless degree qualifications. I know that, as someone who recently obtained an undergraduate degree, the job market is saturated with people who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars earning higher education requirements only to find that they can’t get jobs in their fields, or that their “training” is irrelevant.

    Most businesses want people who have already proven themselves in a work environment, not an academic environment. It’s becoming progressively more important for college students to aggressively pursue internships while simultaneously maintaining acceptable grades.

    As you emphasized above, I don’t condone her behavior in lying on her resume. I really hate when people lie on their resumes because they end up being rewarded for degrading themselves. I can see why they do it, though. They know they can do the job, but they would never be considered for it without an insanely padded resume.

  2. blc303 on

    There are two issues here.

    Increasingly, there is a move toward requiring advanced degrees for all but the simplest jobs; even where no degree is necessary. And even if an entry level job is available, any career advancement is almost impossible without some form of higher education. This is partially because there are so many degree holders, any entry level job has a plethora of degree holding applicants. But it is also tied to a de-emphasis on experience and skills.

    Perversely, most companies use internships and an experience requirement to create a low paid, entry level, temporary positions. This has a filter function. If the person works out, they will be offered an extension or permanent position: if not: next please.

    This is a double-sided sword, harming both society and families.

    Look at the increasing age of women having children. I would argue there are two reasons for this. One, women would like to have their own career. Therefore, the women wait to have a settled job and partnership before jumping into parenthood. But they and their partners end up being shredded in the endless mill of internships offering only temporary stability. They are in their late twenties or early thirties before any stability offers itself.

    Internships are used to filter the best of the best instead of companies trying to create their own best as it once was. Why? Too expensive. No shareholder benefits.

    Perhaps the way forward is to put more emphasis on an early vertical, specialized model of education. This would be an attempt to revamp the system, including a fresh look at high schools and the ideas behind generic verse vocational education.

    I have no idea how you could test the idea though and even less confidence that we could change anything even if we wanted to.

    You point out that people pad their resumes. Yes. That is a real problem.

    Interestingly. Jones originally had a job that didn’t require her to pad. But I wonder how long she looked for work before she finally said, “F*ck it. I just want this job. I’ll try padding.” It was probably not a well planned scheme. She obviously made a mistake in her early 20’s that has now come back to haunt her.

    I doubt she planned a career at MIT. I doubt she thought she would be as effective as she was. But I would hope she comes forward with her early background. That the story of why she did what she did gets more play. That one of the keys here and I doubt we’ll hear enough about it.

  3. Teresa on

    Wow, If I’d known how much it would have helped me, I would have mentioned my Masters in marketing and my PhD in Advanced Darwin Studies, and my Post-bac in brain surgery.

    Do you think it’s too late to throw them on there?

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