Monday, October 14, 2013

Missing the obvious in American higher education

Many on the elite Left, such as opinion-spinsters on the New York Times, wring their hands over the focus on measuring the value of a college degree by the job outcomes of college graduates.  This includes many deans of the 180 low-tier law schools (one of whom was allowed to write a NYT editorial). 

Frank Bruni worries that

the inclusion of graduates’ earnings as one yardstick of effectiveness belongs to a broader trend of seeing college in pecuniary terms that could easily go too far. 
Dean Laurence Mitchell of Case Western Law School agrees.  He downplays the job market woes by noting that the previous job market downturn for law graduates, in 1998, saw 55% of law graduates starting in law firms, while 50% found similar jobs in 2011:

a 9 percent decline from a previous low during the worst economic conditions in decades hardly seems catastrophic.
Perhaps Bruni would disagree with Mitchell's analysis of the job market for lawyers, but it is strange that they complain about using career and income outcomes as a metric to assess the quality of American higher education while consistently pointing to surveys and statistics showing that those with college degrees have lower rates of unemployment and higher incomes of those without college degrees.  In fact, it reminds me very much of law school deans who complain about the US News' law school rankings while simultaneously claiming credit for improvements in the rankings.

Bruni and Mitchell both acknowledge the huge cost of attendance for American higher education and law schools, but, at least in their columns, they don't connect the dots between student loans and that all-important first job.  After all, if sufficient income gains aren't realized soon after the loan payments become due, the effects can snowball as graduates delay marriage, significant purchases, and starting a family.

Just imagine two Case Western Reserve law school graduates marrying soon after graduation, both median students who had to borrow most of the $40K annual tuition and $20K living expenses, creating a combined debt load of a conservative $300,000 (as opposed to the more liberal $400K+, if you include interest, undergraduate debt, credit card debt, etc).  Will those two 27-31 year olds be comforted by Dean Mitchell telling them that he and the law professors there have educated them "for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years," when they are paying $2000-3500 a month in student loans, on a combined $100K salary?

While I don't think that injecting partisan politics into the law school scam debate is necessarily productive, I think much of the problem can be the traced to the Left's utter dominance of American higher education.

The level of imbalance that the elite Left wields on higher education (and law schools) is dangerous when coupled with the good intentions (everyone should get a college degree) and belief in their own infallibility (how often do we see them deride their opponents for not following "science" or being "rational", or patting themselves on the back for being "open-minded"?).

The end result is colossal mistakes where the people hurt most are the people the Left has been trying to help, and those that the Left publicly derides gains much of the benefits, with the added kicker that when the colossal mistake occurs, and is blindingly obvious, they miss the bloody point!!!

For instance, one of their favorite scapegoats of the tuition increases is a decrease in state aid to public schools.  While I would not disagree that some tuition increases are because of a decrease in state-funding, I don't think it tells the whole story (not to mention that it doesn't explain the increases in private schools' tuition).

Why would revenue-strapped states increase valuable tax revenue to colleges, when much of the new expensive is going to administrative bloat, expensive non-educational physical facilities, faculty salaries, and students can borrow tens of thousands of dollars from the federal government directly?  We can take this further and point out that if a public university drastically raises tuition every year for the raises of the administrators and to hire a new Dean of Sustainability and the assistant and secretary, and a state keeps funding the same amount of valuable tax revenue, it would appear that the state aid has decreased, at least when viewed from total contributions.

I digress, but the point is simply that the point is missed, and missed in a strategic way to assign blame elsewhere:  Business-minded college presidents.  For-profit universities.  Republican governors.  "Low" taxes.  They are the real villains here.  Not us.  We thoroughly dominate academia and America's institutions of higher learning, but it is not our fault.  Do not hold us accountable.

If the reformers get enough traction and influence to question their policies, it gets even more ugly, and the hypocrisy is exposed even more.  The last post I made was based on a letter circulated by the AALS Section on Minority Groups, attacking the ABA's draft recommendations on weakening tenure at law schools.  The AALS SMG attacked the argument for increasing the "flexibility" of law school administrators as perpetuating the "status quo of underrepresentation of minority professors in legal education."

In other words, if the reformers get bold enough, the motives will get attacked as biased against certain groups.

One obvious approach to lowering tuition and oversaturation in certain fields is to reduce supply and demand.

For law schools, this would mean lowering the applicant pool and limiting the amount of money that the students can borrow from the government.  This could be done very simply in two steps.  First, require a minimum LSAT score for a student to attend law school, say 155, and a minimum GPA, say a 3.3.  Second, outlaw GradPlus loans.

In support of such a solution, the reformers can fairly argue that there are too many law graduates for the market to bear, and they are bearing too much debt.  This can be solved by keeping the "highest qualified" students, as measured by their academic credentials, and reducing the amount that law students can borrow.  By holding the remaining applicants to Stafford Loans, they will be forced to be sensitive on price (as opposed to students of higher ed. in general being price insensitive), and ultimately graduate with less debt.  With less debt, the students will be more able to pursue public interest or low-paying legal jobs in rural communities.

However, the obvious will be missed.  The law school establishment would protest such proposals as attacks on lower-income and minority groups.

They would argue that eliminating GradPlus loans would mean only the well-to-do could attend law school.  However, if law school wasn't so expensive, students wouldn't need to borrow tens of thousands of dollars extra a year over the Stafford limit!  Students could go to law school, work during school, and graduate with much less debt. 

They would argue that basing law school admittance on LSAT scores is biased against minority groups such as blacks and Hispanics, because those groups have median LSAT scores which are much lower than median white or Asian students.  They miss the fact that we already base law school admittance on LSAT scores.  You can only get into certain schools with certain LSAT scores.  If the LSAT is so biased against historically underrepresented minorities, why do we still use it?  But since LSAT/GPA are correlated to class rank, law school grades are biased against UM groups (blacks get on average poorer grades than their peers).

As you can see, the blame for the legal education crisis, which affects UM groups more than whites, can be laid squarely on the law school establishment!  They claim to want to help traditionally disadvantaged people get legal careers, but they have perpetuated a system which is stacked against those people from the beginning!

In closing, I will say that when any group has outsized influence on an institution or subject, they will shift blame, obfuscate, and otherwise try to hold onto their influence.  There are many examples on all political sides.  However, ideology is at play here, and I think we need to recognize the danger that the power and hubris of the elite Left poses to our efforts in continuing to miss the point.

"The road to hell is paved in good intentions."

PS: I have stayed up very late writing this, so I apologize for any incoherencies and grammar/spelling mistakes.  I will make any needed corrections in the morning.


  1. ScamDeans and LawProfs will always be disingenous and conflated on the subject of (1) the "need" for higher education with (2) actual student outcomes.

    Over the last 40-50 years, degree inflation has reached the point where you all but need a college degree to work at Starbucks, let alone attempt anything else. Law School is one of the worst offenders in this regard, when contemplating overall cost of the degree and decades of JD overproduction.

    But they won't see it. It's easy to say "don't focus on the outcomes" when you yourself come from well-to-do families and high social capital.

    Students need jobs to service the outrageous debt that was assumed under false pretenses, you brood of vipers. It's really quite simple. Cut the cost, and cut student suffering in turn. You wont do this, however, as BMWs and fancy Brownstones don't pay for themselves (except in NY), so take your hypocrisy and silver-spooned-pity-parties someplace else. That is all.

  2. This is another way of the academic thieves saying "Don't worry about the jobs. We're providing you entitled whiners with an education. This will benefit you so greatly in life (but we can't explain why)."

  3. Another way to do this is with outcome-based limits on lending, as the Obama administration has hinted at. If the outcome is that only half of students get full-time permanent jobs as lawyers 9 or 10 months out, the school can be limited to that half in federal funding, or to that half plus 5% of the class.
    Medical schools accept less than half the applicants over all. No one is saying the medical schools discriminate against underrepresented minorites.

    1. How does Obama's plan force schools to compete on price? Price is the only thing wrong with higher education. Without price inflation people don't need to borrow to attend school, and they can make their own choices and face their own consequences. More choice is better.

      The problem is that the huge subsidies and central goals like an arbitrary number of people should have an arbitrary degree, ***are The Cause of price inflation.***

      So, you have fewer schools, each of which just costs more and more.

      More federal control, less choice, more fascist alliances between schools and government. Less free market. Horrible. I won't go in for Stalinist 5-year plans in the centrally planned economy.

    2. There was included a proposal to control runaway costs that the federal loan program currently supports. Of course none of these proposals have seen the light of day yet. Nothing has changed. More than double the number of law students the market can absorb and run away cost increases in higher education continue.

    3. I'm cynical about all of this, because at any time the federal government could reduce loan eligibility forcing schools to lower tuition. Instead, what I saw in law school was loan eligibility march in lock step with tuition increases.

      Of course, this is both parties. On the front end you've got collusion with schools to allow prices to rise precipitously, and on the back end you've got bullshit led by Republicans (and parroted by Democrats) urging (and accomplishing) the removal of bankruptcy in order to save the government and institutional players from the defaults that are inevitable given the gap between cost to students and wages of students.

      Anytime I hear a politician propose a "solution" that does not involve a frank confrontation of the fact that the government is responsible for creating and incentivizing price inflation, I know it's a bunch of horseshit.

      No one wants to talk about the inescapable tension between the goals of subsidizing educational costs and price inflation. When you throw a bunch of money at something, the price goes up.

      Instead we just hear meme-eque propaganda from two "ideological" extremes: education should be "free" (let's subsidize the hell out of it) vs. individual responsibility (let's not have bankruptcy protection). Meeting in the mathematical middle produces the kind of horrible, exploitative, unstable and failing system we have now.

      Having experienced the system as a poor person, I would choose no subsidies at all, because that gives me and others a shot at affording it ourselves.

  4. The comment about "seeing college in pecuniary terms" frames us as a bunch of single-minded gold-diggers who instrumentalize everything (including lofty Education™) for crude plutocratic ends.

    What with the monstrous cost of law school, any prospective student would be a fool not to look at it in pecuniary terms. The fact is that people go to law school with the intention and expectation of working in law. Hardly anyone would fork over a quarter of a million dollars and blow three years on law school as a detached exercise in intellectual stimulation. Law school is professional training, so, yes, people do consider its utility for entering the legal profession. There is nothing crass about that.

    Who really sees law school in pecuniary terms? The goddamn profe$$ors and administrators whose cushy jobs and benefits (some of which, such as sabbaticals, find no parallel elsewhere) are paid for by the law-school scam. The bastards laugh all the way to the bank.

  5. When the schools measure my worth to them as a number (GPA, LSAT) and ignore the broader me, I cannot be faulted for measuring the worth of the school in similarly narrow ways. Like employment stats. So enough of this holistic expectation that students should consider intangibles when the law schools I applied to ignored my four years of college with a 4.0 in STEM, my graduate degree, and admitted a kid with a 165 LSAT and a 3.5 in poli sci over my 160.

    And don't get me started over publishing employment stats and then telling us to ignore them...

    1. "Holistic admissions" is just cover for favoring rich kids.

  6. The real issue is the nature of the JD. If it really is education for the sake if education and employment outcomes are irrelevant, then the JD is really just a graduate liberal arts degree. In such case, tuition should be the same as other graduate liberal arts degrees.

    If in fact it is a professional degree, then of course the professional success of the graduates if JD programs is not just relevant but the most critical indicator of a JD program's value.

    1. Agreed. MBAs, for example, don't have any philosophical problem correlating cost of degree with professional success. It's what they trade on.

      Applying the same logic to a JD, "defending liberty" and "pursuing justice" clearly ain't free then, y'all.

      But "I teach, therefore I deserve to get paid a tenured-sum." You, in contrast, actually represent the indigent, but you should do this because Pro Bono and 'Merica.

      I swear, the establishment is masterful in their duplicity.

  7. The Valvoline Dean is laughing right now as he speeds on in his Mercedes AMG which runs on the souls of his indebted grads.

  8. Frank Bruni was never the same after the Mike Tyson fight.

  9. Almost without exception, an individual or organization that plays the "for it's own sake" card is trying to maintain the ability to extract wealth without being subjected to rational scrutiny.

  10. Bravo, good post. The left wingers who run law schools are conservative in the small "c" sense - keep everything the way it is, no matter how bad. Tuition must keep rising. America needs more lawyers. Teach law by the Socratic method. Law must take 3 years. At the graduate level. Professors salaries must rise annually. Etc

    1. on the other hand, there are conservatives making a gold mine on for-profit schools that teach useless skills (i.e. "take out second mortgage and get a new skill for the new global economy"). This isn't a lefty or righty thing. It's a money thing (some of my buddies from b-school have been investing in these institutions, and it's amazing to watch the returns).

    2. You think only for-profit schools make a killing off students? Non-profits make "profit" that is not given to owners, but to the employees - ie professors - in the form of benefits - raises, sabbaticals, grants, funding for this and that, housing stipends. Especially elite private schools like Harvard, Yale...and especially their law schools. Federal records showed donations from Princeton employees in the 2012 presidential campaign favored Obama over Romney 155 to 2 ... and those 2 were a visiting lecturer and a janitor.

      Yes, this is a left-right thing. The LEFT owns higher ed, except for a 5-10% of professors and some for-profit technical schools, which Im guessing are politically neutral and would turn against whoever threatened to stop the Fed govt from guaranteeing student loans.

      Greedy left wing professors have screwed the middle class by raising tuitions faster than inflation annually. Both parties have presided over the Fed govt's guarantees for student loans. Only libertarians/conservatives want to see those guarantees ended or reduced in some way, and you know as well as I do that leftists would scream bloody murder if the GOP actually proposed something.

      "You are anti-science! Conservatives hate education! Blah blah blah Sarah Palin blah blah blah"

  11. Nomenklatura: A great Russian word that all Americans should come to know and understand. The Nomenklatura were a social class in the old Soviet Union that enjoyed an upper-middle class sort of lifestyle, because they had the patronage of somebody with political power. Tenured academics have very cushy jobs, with relatively comfortable incomes provided by state-enabled debt serfdom of the next generation. Not exactly the KGB, but I'd argue they are Nomenklatura nonetheless.

  12. I always loved it when the professors and the educational establishment claimed that graduates in general were too focused on money and didn't look at the worth of college outside of economic concerns. Yes, these are the same people who raised tuition so high that one has to mortgage one's soul to attend. And they say WE are the ones that are too money-oriented?

    Uh, yes, when I have to mortgage my soul to attend, I do kind of tend to focus on employment outcomes. But of course, that's all MY doing. Sky-high tuition had absolutely NOTHING to do with it.

  13. The higher education sector in America is the most overpriced and least efficient in the world (as is its medical care sector, but that's another story). What is obvious from this, although its hard to confront, is that the higher education industry is hopelessly corrupt and riddled with graft. Every layer of higher education is fill of rent-seeking non-productive middlemen all taking their cut. It would be hard for Americans to acknowledge this, as such systemic corruption isn't supposed to occur in America, and certainly not in such a respected industry.

    1. Anonymous, you familiar with the "Confessions of College Professor" blog? I think you will find yourself agreeing with his also anonymous comments. Check it out at: