Surely you have read that Times article about law schools and how they entice naïve students onto their campuses with shiny misleading job placement data and median salary figures only to strap a lifetime of debt onto their backs and send them off into the barren desert. If you haven't, you should—it's a good read—because I won't be recounting the many ways in which the writer nearly compares law schools to con artists or pyramid schemes. I will pull out this one paragraph, though, which helps to explain the mess.
Apparently, there is no shortage of 22-year-olds who think that law school is the perfect place to wait out a lousy economy and the gasoline that fuels this system—federally backed student loans—is still widely available. But the legal market has always been obsessed with academic credentials, and today, few students except those with strong grade-point averages at top national and regional schools can expect a come-hither from a deep-pocketed firm. Nearly everyone else is in for a struggle. Which is why many law school professors privately are appalled by what they describe as a huge and continuing transfer of wealth, from students short on cash to richly salaried academics. Or perhaps this is more like a game of three-card monte, with law schools flipping the aces and a long line of eager players, most wagering borrowed cash, in a contest that few of them can win.
As the article notes, rankings, US News in particular, are at the center of the issue. Only students from top-tier schools can normally get the lucrative BigLaw jobs, and it’s the rankings which control the perception of which programs are at the top. From the schools' perspectives, it's an arms race and the ethical implications of skewing data and fudging the numbers are secondary to the impulse for self-preservation. For the second-tier (and maybe third-tier) schools, the rosy view of the legal job market provided by US News, when combined with an ignorance of the actual distribution of average starting salaries, helps get them enormous amounts of tuition money from prospective students, many of whom should have done more research before applying.
That applicants don't put in the adequate time to assess their situations and research their futures should take some of the blame off the law schools. Unlike many victims of sub-prime mortgage hawks, law school candidates can much more easily avoid tragedy. As Vault's Mary Kate Sheridan writes: "Individuals entering law school are (hopefully) intelligent, analytical adults, who should leave naivety at the door and fully inform themselves before moving forward. When it comes to employment, there are no guarantees one will get a job, and there are no guarantees one will keep that job regardless of the economy."
Law schools aren't the only ones engaging in the bait-and-switch. The MBA has been subject to a lot of criticism lately, PhDs too, and MFA programs more so. Graduate programs in the humanities have long been seen as roads to nowhere. Even undergraduate colleges have been accused of roping students in with certain unspoken promises then graduating them with sizeable debt into jobs for which they are overqualified (Richard Vedder writes that "approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less."). Is it any wonder that corporations have started to gravitate towards for-profit educational ventures for whom guerilla recruiting tactics are encouraged?
The collision of recent economic and political currents the last few years has placed a spotlight on the educational system's many problems, and there will certainly be a lot of changes in the future. Whether this results in more or less deception, what this article makes clear for anyone thinking about law school right now, is that it isn't for everyone and they better do their homework before they go, because the consequences could be disastrous.
Law School Isn't a Game - It's a Serious Investment
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