Amassing credentials has become an almost obligatory part of the undergraduate experience. Whether seeking our first job or the next degree, many of us experience considerable pressure to rack up activities and honors as we march through college, even if it means sacrificing genuine learning. Credentialism springs largely from external pressures, and those of us who accumulate credentials most zealously rarely do so out of contempt for intellectualism.
An excessive concern with credentials may diminish the intrinsic value we get from learning, but credentialism and intellectual growth are not necessarily incompatible. Metrics like grade point average should, at least in part, signify a student’s intellectual capabilities, and the clubs a student participates in should reflect his interests. However, some of the most common resume items have become empty signifiers, and the kinds of credentials students pursue do not always indicate proficiency and genuine interest in a subject nor a willingness to confront challenging material.
Without making distinctions across majors, Duke’s GPA system fails to account for variations in the difficulty and grading structure of different courses. We do not mean to imply that some majors are easier or more difficult than others. We only suggest that a student’s grade means very little if not understood in context, and that the GPA system should not punish students who risk a bad grade because they desire a challenge. We do not know what the best system would look like, but a student’s GPA ought to reflect his intelligence and aptitude, not his professor’s grading style or his tendency to shy away from challenging courses.
Duke’s Latin honors system, because it also fails to differentiate between different courses of study, faces similar problems. The University should think about how to restructure both the GPA and Latin honors systems in a way that rewards achievement and intellectual curiosity.
Myths about the kinds of credentials employers and graduate schools value can pit credentialism against intellectualism. Misconceptions about majors and internships, for instance, tend to direct students away from their interests and into unrewarding classes or summer jobs.
With few exceptions, majors have no exclusive relationship to particular jobs or post-graduate positions. You do not have to study economics to enter finance, nor public policy to enter politics. Moreover, internships, despite their ubiquity, do not always confer the kinds of practical knowledge and workplace experience that employers and graduate schools prize. Employers, again with some exceptions, care about internships only insofar as they say something meaningful about a student—namely, that he has good interpersonal skills, intelligence and an ability to learn quickly. Given the shortcomings of internships, students may be better off participating in a program like DukeEngage that, for the most part, allows for genuine learning.
Given the importance of intellectual growth, both students and administrators should examine the issue of credentialism more thoroughly. Groups like the Duke Colloquium, which works to understand the relationship between professional success and the humanities, contribute to the discussion, but resolving the issue will require a more focused analysis. We urge the administration to rethink the GPA and Latin honors systems, and recommend the creation of a student committee to determine how well conventional credentials align with aptitude.