While Congress has become pretty thoroughly professionalized in recent decades, state legislatures are still home to some genuinely eccentric people. Back when I was working for the Indiana General Assembly, one member (and not the member who was, no lie, a radio psychic) became convinced that it was crucially important for the state to address, via statute, the problem of rogue hypnotists travelling the land, preying upon unsuspecting Hoosiers. He wasn’t anti-hypnotist, mind you–he thought the government needed to protect people from unqualified hypnotists. If you ask me, real hypnotists are the ones we should be worried about (You want…to give me…your credit card…information…) but then I’m not a duly-elected public servant.
So the state passed a hypnotist licensing law, complete with the requisite boards, professional standards, forms to fill out, fees to pay, and so on. The law is still on the books; see here for more information on the Indiana Hypnotist Committee and its approved study guides (e.g. Hypnosis, Is it For You?, Lewis R. Wolberg, M.D., Dembner Books 1982.) If you’re interested, the next exam is scheduled for Friday, December 11th at 9:00 AM. Bring a pencil!
Then, after the law was enacted, a funny thing started happening: The state began receiving license applications from people who didn’t live in Indiana. People who lived in states (i.e. most states) that didn’t require hypnotist licensing of any kind. Some were from as far away as California. It turns out they were doing it so they could advertise in the yellow pages and on bus-stop billboards as “state-licensed.” They would just neglect to mention which state.
The point being, when the government endorses or mandates a specific process for gaining credentials that certify attainment of certain kinds of knowledge and skills, it matters. People take it seriously. Postsecondary education is the most complicated expensive thing you’ll ever buy and you’ll have it for the rest of your life. It’s really important that you be able to concisely and conclusively demonstrate it to other people.
Yet the way our government has gone about choosing what kinds of postsecondary education demand which levels of official state scrutiny doesn’t really make much sense. In certain situations–heart surgery, for example–there’s an obvious societal interest in strong regulation of the labor market. But licensing hypnotists is crazy, and the same is true for massage therapists, hearing aid dealers, cosmetologists, and auctioneers–all of whom also need to be duly licensed in Indiana. I mean, what’s the worst thing that could happen at an auction run by an unlicensed auctioneer? The guy doesn’t talk fast enough and people are late for lunch?
A more sensible approach is to create transparent, high-quality standards that people can take or leave as they wish. And this is an area where the government could arguably do more. A few months ago I wrote a story about an entrepreneur who is making a business of selling extremely inexpensive college courses on line. One of his biggest obstacles is that consumers tend to think, not without reason, that less expensive things aren’t as good as more expensive things. We do this unconscious math in our heads all the time: If private colleges charge $4,000 a course, than a $99 course must be 1/40th as good. The entrepreneur therefore has an extremely strong interest in proving otherwise–if his course is only half as good, it could be a really good value that people would want to pay for.
Yet there in no process in existence today that allows him to conclusively make his case. No state-endorsed exams, no common assessments or standards that groups of college have mutually agreed to endorse. The only real state-backed quality assurance process in higher education is accreditation, which creates standards for the elements of institutional quality, not what students are supposed to learn. Colleges are allegedly supposed to report learning outcomes under accreditation (good luck finding them!) but they’re invariably idiosyncratic and incomplete.
Instead of wasting time making sure that every man and woman with a swinging gold pocket watch has a government certificate, states would be better off investing in rock-solid processes for assessing certain domains of knowledge that are broadly shared across most college curricula. Right now this function is sub-optimally left in private hands.