Sunday, March 25, 2012

Is College a Scam? Probably Not, But Calling It One Would Make the Suffering Meaningful

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I apologize to Bill Henderson, a first-rate student of empirical method, for what is to follow, but it's at least a sliver of data from which I'm going to spin a little perspective, which itself will be cold comfort to those caught in a particular population cohort at a particular moment in history on a particular segment of the macro-economic cycle.  

A short piece in today's New York Times Sunday Magazine, entitled "Hello, Cruel World," is a survey of the 2011 graduating baccalaureate class of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, which the Times characterizes as follows:  "For all its merits - including a much admired theater department and a prestigious Wall Street internship program - Drew ranks 94th among 178 private liberal-arts colleges on U.S. News & World Report's annual list.  The middle of the collegiate pack is not where you want to be when you're competing for a diminishing number of entry-level jobs."  

Now I don't think there's a perfect analog between undergraduate education and professional education when it comes to a causal link between the tuition investment and post-graduate employment.   If you read the survey and the student comments, however, it's clear that there's an expectation that going to college has something to do with putting yourself in a better position to compete for employment.  Does this sound familiar?  39% of the Drew class have full time jobs.  Phi Beta Kappa students from Drew's senior class can't find non-menial jobs.  An anthropology major works as a dog groomer.  An English major can't earn enough money to make the monthly payment on $128,000 in educational loans.  (If I read this correctly, the Times spoke to 226 of Drew's 309 graduating seniors in December 2011.  Of the 226, only 4 are in law school as compared to these numbers for other graduate programs:  education - 11; health care - 7; psychology/social work - 7; business - 5; liberal arts - 5; sciences -5.) 

What I don't see in the comments from the students interviewed is the idea that college is a massive conspiracy cooked up by faculties and administrators to feather their own nests with government-funded student loans, leaving students to bear the cost over the remainder of their working lives.  (I grant it's likely that undergraduate school don't publish post-graduate employment statistics, but I think Judge Schweitzer probably got it right in his skepticism about the causal relationship between those statistics and the decision to go to law school.)  I don't mean at all to minimize the hardship of having a lot of debt without a job to provide the income to repay it, but this information is really telling us that the lifetime mortgages placed on young people by college and professional school tuition debt are a far broader issue than merely the so-called law school "scam."

Here are several theses, briefly stated and barely explicated:

1.  It's really hard to assess causation, "but-for" or proximate, for this kind of hardship from the midst of the hardship.   I think lawyers (and law students) self-select as finding meaningful causative links in what other people refer to as "blame":  "okay, something bad happened, who's responsible, and can we have a perp walk?"  (I've written about this in connection with the financial crisis:  "The Financial Crisis of 2008-09:  Capitalism Didn't Fail, But the Metaphors Got a 'C,'" and "The Epistemology of the Financial Crisis: Complexity, Causation, Law, and Judgment.") (That's not to say there are never perps, but the availability heuristic triggered by the Andy Fastows, Bernie Ebbers, and Bernie Madoffs makes us think there are more real ones than there really are.)

2. It's really hard to make policy from the midst of this kind of hardship.  My sense is that the problem is not so much the debt but the economic prospects, or at least the ratio of the debt to the prospects.  In other words, this wasn't an issue before the downturn, but the debt still existed.  What springs to mind is our family's experience as baby boomers raising children in the millennial baby boomlet of the late 80s and early 90s.  The problem was lack of capacity in the elementary and middle schools at a time when you could drive around a suburbs and see dozens of unmistakably 1950s and early 1960s former school buildings that had been sold off in the zero population growth culture of the late 1960s and 1970s.  Matching up macro-demand and macro-supply, particularly looking forward rather than backward, is hardly science.  (From a Drew graduate in the survey, now at Georgetown Law:  "I'm hoping that the job market will pick up in the three years I spend at law school, because a lot of lawyers are getting laid off.")

3.  No institutions are immune from Schumpeterian creative destruction, including AOL, Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, General Motors, AIG, Dewey Leboeuf, or law schools.  (Of the 25 largest U.S. corporations in 1900, only two existed in the same corporate form in 1963.)   That doesn't make living in the midst of the destruction and re-genesis any easier.   

4.  Quietism or "manure happens" (as we horseback riders like to say) is not an appropriate leadership or management philosophy, but there are no silver bullets either.  No proposed solution is immune from the mysterious leap of hypothesis that occurs when we try to translate our experience of the past into predictions of the future.  I mentioned to Bill offline that I think his recent industry analysis of legal education is spot-on, but I share his optimism only in the macro, not the micro.  I agree with Bill that we'll likely look back in five or ten years, having experienced the shake-out, and agree that the profession and its schools are in a better place that they were in 2012, with those smart enough or lucky to have made the right moves - i.e., see the first sentence in this paragraph - being around to write the history.  I can't be optimistic that nobody is going to be caught in the micro of the shake-out.  As to them, it's going to be really hard to assess causation, "but-for" or proximate, for their kind of hardship from the midst of the hardship. But that won't stop people for searching for the perp.

[Cross-posted at The Legal Whiteboard.]

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