Excessive Credentialism and the American Aristocracy

I can’t help but feel that I was born into a crystallizing aristocracy. This might sound strange for a couple of reasons. For one, I was born in the US, a country that deliberately eschewed the establishment of a formal aristocracy. Secondly, I was born a black male, statistically one of the most disadvantaged demographics among American citizens. Still, as I look back at my life, I feel that I was born with something approaching a silver spoon in my mouth. My parents were not born into anything resembling an aristocracy. None of my grandparents had college degrees. Both of my grandfathers never even finished high school. Despite this, my mother and father both attained bachelor’s degrees and my dad holds a master’s degree. My dad went on to become an advertising executive and my mom has been a real estate agent most of my life after leaving a career in media prior to having children. I say this not to provide a family history, but rather to say my parents’ lives could have easily gone in an entirely different direction.

I am approaching my senior year at New York University. I somehow always knew I would end up there. In my junior year of high school, or perhaps earlier, we had to discuss college in small groups with our academic advisor. I distinctly remember saying, “I’ll probably end up at NYU.” Consider the assumptions that went into that. I assumed I would have good enough grades to gain admission. To me that was never in question, not so much because of any inherent talent of my own, but rather because of the careful attention my parents paid to my academic progress. Obviously, studying fell upon me but I never doubted my parents could provide assistance or pay for tutors if necessary. Moreover, I assumed that my parents would be able to afford one of the most notoriously expensive schools in the country. And yet, here I am. Mind you, I commute into the city each day from Westchester to save them money and have considerable scholarship aid, but the fact stands that I am able to attend while incurring almost no cost to myself.

In truth though, I feel that I have learned more useful information from internships than I ever have in any NYU classroom. I’ve held four since my freshman year. However, the applications to all of these required my enrollment in a four-year degree program. These days it seems that most entry-level, full-time office work requires a bachelor’s degree at minimum and likely significant internship experience on top of that. With American manufacturing permanently diminished in the wake of globalization and the brick-and-mortar retail sector virtually collapsing before our eyes, white-collar work is increasingly necessary to ascend to or even remain in the middle class. But as noted, to hold the lowest rank in a conventional office, that of an intern, requires enrollment in college at the very least. Often, it requires that you are enrolled in a good college, that you are excelling, and that you have parents, or figures in your life, cognizant and invested enough to assist you in the process. I was born into circumstances that allowed me this. Many, though, do not have the money or guidance necessary to compete under those rules. That’s not to say my relative success so far was a given, but it certainly wasn’t a bad bet. That’s because economic class is an increasingly reliable indicator of an individual’s academic and, subsequently, financial success. I believe this is due, in part, to the excessive credentialism of corporate America.

I major in English at NYU. The advanced literary analysis I have learned in pursuit of my degree has helped me little, if at all, in my internships. Office work, as I’ve experienced it, requires professionalism, creativity, good communication skills, and diligence as well as knowledge of your respective department or division’s procedures and protocols. The development of these qualities and skills does not require a bachelor’s degree. Rather, they are more often instinctual or developed on the job. However, a bachelor’s degree is very much the price of entry for corporate America. Often this requirement is explicitly written into company policy. If not, it is enforced to the same effect. This requirement pervades corporate America despite the fact that most entry-level office work does not actually require four years of college. So why do companies maintain this steep barrier? That wasn’t a rhetorical question. If anyone knows, please share.

Ron Meyer, the vice chairman of NBCUniversal, graciously shared the story of his career with us. He related how he dropped out of high school, joined the Marines, and became a gopher, essentially, to a Los Angeles talent agency after he was discharged. From there, he worked his way up and went on to work for the William Morris Agency before he and his friends struck out on their own to establish what would become the powerhouse Creative Artists Agency. He would later go on to serve as president and CEO of Universal Studios for several years before assuming his current role. Of course, Ron Meyer, at the start of his career, was a white boy in the early 60’s; the world was wide open to him. But I guess that’s my point. No one, of any race, could have a story like Ron Meyer’s today precisely because of the degree requirements companies, including his own, maintain. People who do not come from circumstances such as mine, who cannot handle the financial and time commitment necessary to complete a college degree, should at least have the chance to enter the figurative mailroom and work their way up. Corporations should not give exclusive bidding to people like me. To do so merely perpetuates the economic stratification and polarization that faces our country and bolsters the burgeoning aristocracy. In a time when Americans seem most divided, corporations can do their part by removing the wedge of stringent degree requirements.

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