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There has been talk for the last few years about the unsustainability of the Graduate School program in the United States. For many of us, we have heard the segment that talks specifically about law schools, and have watched as many of the schools are caught in… shall we say, stretching the truth about hiring rates and salaries after graduation. Unfortunately, these issues are not limited to law schools, they are affecting practically every graduate level program in the United States. The cost of obtaining a graduate level degree is not necessarily being off-set by the employment opportunities out there that require these degrees. However, students still persue them; graduate colleges still accept them and increase tuition and fees each year, and; Federal Student Loans are guaranteed by the US government insuring that schools get paid, banks get paid, and students get left with massive amounts of debt.
Everyone Else is to Blame
Last week, I ran across a few things that reminded me that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. First of all, I had lunch with my co-blogger, Toby, who reminded me that no one involved in this situation thinks that they are the problem. He told a story of how years ago he sat in a room with people representing law schools, bar associations, law firms, and lawyers, and how it became a “everyone is to blame but me” session. He mentioned that everyone knew the system was flawed, but that the flaw lay in someone else’s area of responsibility.
The second thing I saw was a tweet from Jim Milles from this week’s Association of American Law Schools’ annual meeting:
Jim Moliterno on Washington & Lee’s 3L curriculum reform. This is a great time for reformers because there’s demand to do better. #aals12
I responded to Jim and asked him how in the heck can there be reformers in an environment when no one thinks they are the problem?? His response was that he thought it “was a little bit of encouragement from Dean Moliterno” on the subject. So, does that mean this is not a call to action, but more of a wish that someone would step up and be the reformer that law schools need? Best of luck with that.
So once again, law schools know there’s a problem, yet aren’t ready to step up to the plate to fix it.
What about the Bar Association?? Well, apparently they aren’t to blame either, according to the ABA President, William Robinson. In a Reuters interview, Robinson placed the bubble blame squarely on the shoulders of the students who go to law school:
It’s inconceivable to me that someone with a college education, or a graduate-level education, would not know before deciding to go to law school that the economy has declined over the last several years and that the job market out there is not as opportune as it might have been five, six, seven, eight years ago…
Robinson’s suggestion to the problem is if a student does decide they are willing to take the risk of entering a down-market job industry like legal, at least do it through a cheaper school. Robinson then picked up the ball and squarely punted it away from the ABA by saying that the ABA was completely powerless in holding down the cost of a law degree.
So the ABA isn’t to blame, it must be the Schools or Students fault.
That brings me to an article I saw regarding students and the burden they have with debt after grad school. On the Life Inc. portion of the Today Show’s website, there was an interview of two law librarians titled “Loving the job, but hating the student loan debt.” At first blush, I have to admit that I wasn’t very sympathetic to a couple that took on more than $150,000 in student loans, and was having a hard time meeting those obligations even though their combined income was more than $100,000 a year. While reading this, it made me wonder if William Robinson’s assessment that students are idiots for jumping into grad schools, and taking on massive amounts of debt for a potentially moderate paying profession is correct.
Is it wise to go to a grad school that charges in the neighborhood of $40K a year in tuition, as this librarian did by getting a degree at Drexel instead of a state school?? If the median wage of a law librarian is $54,500, does it make sense to go to a program that will cost you somewhere between $80K and $100K to finish? Jennifer Wertkin nailed the situation perfectly when she tweeted a response to this story and said “Law librarians overeducated & underpaid.” Although it is required for most law librarian jobs to have an advanced degree like a JD or an MLS, can that be sustained in an economy that doesn’t produce the pay to support the debt needed to enter the workforce?
Pressure to Take the Risk
In a way, the whole situation reminds me of the recent housing bubble. Think of the similarities of the home ownership pressures and the pressures that the higher your education level is, the more successful you will be. We are told that college graduates are more likely to make tens of thousands of dollars more than their high-school counterparts. Grad school graduates make more than undergraduates. It reminds me of the argument we heard about home ownership equaling success (think of those home owners vs. renters stats for crime, income, stability, etc.) So, there is pressure on the students to take on more education than they probably need. Add to that, the easiness of credit for college tuition (conveniently backed by the Federal Government in most cases), increased tuition costs, and add in a sudden economic downturn, and you got yourself a bubble ready to burst.
Free-Market and the Big “POP!”
Earlier this year, I heard futurist Andy Hines make a comment at the AALL Future’s Summit, that Higher Education in the United States is in for an implosion in the next ten years. I think he may be right on that topic, and I think I might know what will cause the implosion. Of course, this is all speculation on my part, so I could be wrong, but bare with me on this. Just think about what would happen if the Federal Government decided to adopt some austerity programs, and one of those programs was to stop guaranteeing student load debt? Suddenly, the free market would kick in and students would have to practically prove that they have employment lined up in order to get a student loan for grad school. No loan guarantees would essentially sink most grad programs. It will be at that time that you will hear the giant “POP” in this bubble.