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Dealing with credential inflation: Will more education lift people out of poverty?

You probably know someone who has a ton of degrees: bachelors, multiple master’s degrees, PhD, and several certifications. The question you ask is that to what end is this person getting more education? Sometimes, advanced education shows that one is committed to lifelong learning. Other times, it serves as a strategy for people to have better earning potentials in the labour market. While it is true that getting more education can help candidates have better bargaining potential with their employers, it does not necessarily command more market value.

In recent times, there is a trend of recent university graduates in Nigeria going back to school immediately after their undergraduate degrees to obtain master’s degrees and other higher academic credentials. Gone are the days when it was rare to find people with postgraduate degrees. Postgraduate degrees have become so ubiquitous. Everyone has got an extra degree in the bag; hence, the level of formal education is no longer the differentiating factor among job candidates. An extra degree, like a master’s degree or two master’s degrees or a PhD does not necessarily give candidates the competitive advantage needed for them to stand out in the highly competitive labour market.

We are dealing with what is best known as credential inflation whereby there are so many people offering credentials beyond the needs of the employers. In Economics terms, credential inflation is a situation in which the supply of academic credentials far exceeds their demand by employers. Some jobs require secondary school degree holders, but several bachelor’s and master’s degree holders have taken up these jobs due to the current rate of unemployment and underemployment. Some young people would rather go back to school to obtain advanced degrees rather than settle for underemployment; but does this practice always pay off eventually?

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There is an unpopular saying that “postgraduate education is ideally for those who need it, who want it, and can benefit from it”. Before anyone decides to go back to school, the person must evaluate the options at hand thoroughly. A young recent graduate who is interested in obtaining an advanced degree and equally interested in following the corporate career ladder has two ways of entering the labour market. The first option is to prioritize getting work experience first, rising through the ranks before going back to school. For example, graduates who start their careers as interns in consulting firms can later go to business schools for MBA after a few years of work experience. This way, they can study for an advanced degree related to their career path, or a degree that can help them with their personal professional development.

The second option for a recent graduate interested in obtaining an advanced degree and following the corporate ladder would be to go back to school immediately and get some work experience after completing the advanced education programme. This second option is less favoured by some employers who value work experience more than academic credentials. Anyone considering this option should be open-minded enough to know that more credentials do not necessarily translate into better earning power in some industries especially in this age of credential inflation.

There are several benefits of formal education that can make people stand out from their contemporaries. However, certain factors determine whether individuals would reap the dividends of education or not. Anyone considering advanced degree programs should ask pertinent questions: Why would the degree matter? When is the appropriate time to earn the degree? Where is the best place to earn the degree? What benefits would the degree bring? And lastly, what is the opportunity cost of getting the advanced degree?

The question about the opportunity cost for getting an advanced degree is very important as it helps one to evaluate whether the trade-off for getting a postgraduate degree is worth the cost, energy and time. In a nutshell, people should not just go back to school to kill time ahead of finding better job opportunities. We live in a time of credential inflation and more education will not necessarily lift people out of poverty.

Ibrahim is a Lagos-based social researcher, youth advocate, and freelance writer.

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