Therein lies the problem with comparing academic credentials. In the US, we love the idea that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. Bootstraps and the like. It’s a devastatingly beautiful myth perpetuated by tales of underdogs, overachievers, and Cinderella stories. Hard work is certainly correlated with achievement, but opportunities are not distributed equally. So when we inquire about someone’s education, what are we really asking about?
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have become commonplace in most organizations, and while we can argue their effectiveness, as a culture we are at least acknowledging that the American workplace is often not diverse, equitable, or inclusive. One noble, if unfulfilled, aim of DEI trainings is to help companies make fair hiring decisions through implicit bias seminars, online modules, redacted information, and interview guidelines. The idea is to prevent discrimination based on things like age, gender, race, ethnicity, marital status, family stage, socioeconomic status, and disability. Each candidate’s body of work should, theoretically, speak for itself and create a fair comparison. However, in striving for an objective assessment, one traditional demographic variable escapes scrutiny and remains part of the discussion: education, be it degrees acquired, affiliated institutions, grade point average, or test scores. The problem is that, in many ways, one’s academic background serves as a proxy for those very factors. We don’t choose our race or gender, but we are not in full control of our academic outcomes either. So in trying to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive, why do we put so much weight on something that aggregates many baked-in biases and disparities?
A few more examples. Question structure and order favors advantaged students. Even how a test is framed can influence the outcome by inducing stigma priming. For instance, Black students perform worse when a test is declared an assessment of ‘intellectual ability’ and female students perform worse when the goal of a math test is to uncover ‘gender differences’. In both cases, framing triggers stereotype threat and produces a self-fulfilling prophesy. Perhaps the starkest example is that Black students score lower on the SAT if asked to identify their race before the test than if asked afterward (See study 4). Because of historical discrimination and identity biases, the sheer reminder of race and gender shapes educational performance.
A host of other predictors favor the privileged. Recent studies show that air pollution negatively effects cognitive functioning while green spaces provide ‘mental extensions that allow us to think well’. Not surprisingly, low income areas—urban or rural— have more air pollution and less green space than high income areas, creating a cumulative parallel between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that the shift in trajectory occurs so early in life. Your career depends on your college degree, which depends on your high school GPA, which depends on the quality of your middle school, which depends on your school district—all of which depends upon family wealth, social status, race, etc. The academic snowball starts rolling at a young age.
Some predictors are less obvious. Have you ever ‘choked’ on an exam, in an interview, on an important presentation? Research shows the best way to overcome this phenomenon is by blending practice with experience to quell the natural nerves stemming from these situations. Now consider the disadvantage of a first-generation college student, or a second grader with a single working parent, or a high schooler working to help with family bills. How would these students gain the practice or experience to level the playing field with a fourth-generation college student, a second grader with two parents and private tutor, or a high schooler not chipping in for rent? The list goes on. Having children makes it harder to earn advanced degrees. Depression and anxiety can limit academic achievement. You would never ask a job candidate if they take antidepressants or how many children they have, but there is reason to expect differences in educational history based on these factors.
This all makes sense. Perhaps that is why we have simultaneously witnessed a dramatic drop in undergraduate enrollment with an increase in graduate enrollment, or “the educational equivalent of the rich getting richer.” The relationship between demographic variables is nothing new, but given these relationships, how do we adjust our hiring practices in the workplace and advanced degree program placement? There is general agreement that screening by gender, race, and age is discriminatory, but filtering by education may not be that different.
The last thing I want to do is denigrate the value of education or the merit of personal academic achievement. I chose this profession because I believe in the power of education and the promise it affords my students. But we can innovate policies to account for the noise. For instance, we could eliminate the GPA on entry-level job applications the same way many institutions phased out the SAT as a prerequisite for college. We could have implicit bias training to minimize discrimination based on whether a student went to an ivy league school, HBCU, community college, or state university. We could avoid stress triggers like money and food in our elementary math assessments. We could handicap standardized test scores based on access to clean air in the school district. We could do more for students with mental or physical disabilities than adding twenty minutes to their allotted exam time. We will never be able to compare academic apples to apples, but maybe that’s not the goal. After all, oranges grow in a different climate with different soil and different amounts of water—but they are no less delicious.
I understand that job requirements are there for a reason. If you are unable to operate a forklift, you should not get the forklift operator position. I also understand the necessity for objective metrics of academic performance. This is not a participation trophy situation, but I do believe we need to be thoughtful in how we assess academic achievement across candidates. Graduate school programs and managers of entry-level positions are usually looking for potential, and screening out individuals based on a distorted number or school name precludes a lot of potential.
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.