The Law-School Scam, exhaustively discussed by your dutiful servants here at OTLSS, is only one small part—a particularly ugly one, I admit—of the Degree Scam. To understand the Degree Scam, we need to review a bit of history. So gather around Old Guy, boys and girls, and let him tell you a story.
For most of the first half of the twentieth century, few children in the US went on to high school. Many did not finish elementary school. Black, Latino, Indigenous, and rural white people were especially unlikely to attend school for more than a few years, if that.
By World War II, high school was common in most places, though by no means all—for white people, that is. Black people in many areas—not just the Southeast—were still deprived of high school or at best were sidelined into "seg" dumping grounds. Much the same was true of other racialized groups; indeed, it is still more or less true today. Of course, with so few students going to high school, university degrees were rare.
The end of the war marked the beginning of a distinctive generation, the baby boomers, so called because of a spike in the birth rate that extended from 1946 almost until the mid-sixties. The baby boomers profited handsomely from the economic upswing that followed the war—especially in the US, which, unlike much of the rest of the world, emerged practically unscathed. The French call the period from 1945 to the early 1970s the thirty glorious years (les trente glorieuses), and for good reason, because it was unusually prosperous. Simply by chronological accident, the baby boomers reaped the fruits of cheap housing, cheap goods, high wages, rapid growth, nearly full employment (at least among white men, and increasingly among white women and some racialized populations), abundant opportunities. The baby boomers tend to credit themselves for what was really nothing but dumb luck.
As I mentioned, few people in the US went to university. That changed with the baby boomers' cohort. Since most baby boomers had attended high school (unlike the generations before them), they were admissible in principle to university. Various social changes drove many of them to enroll for a bachelor's degree in the 1970s, including the civil-rights movement (which increased blue-collar employment for Black men while also displacing many white men, thereby leading the latter to look into other options) and the fizzling out of les trente glorieuses.
University was so cheap in the 1970s that a baby boomer could work during the summer at some low-paying job—grocery clerk, telephone operator, whatever—and save enough money to cover tuition for the entire following year. A degree back then set a baby boomer apart, precisely because degrees were so uncommon. Many down-at-heel white people and even some racialized people were able to get good jobs in engineering, law, business, teaching, other domains. But even blue-collar employment, at least for able-bodied men, still paid so well that a factory worker who had never finished high school could typically afford a house, a car, and various other trappings of comfortable life, all while accumulating a defined-benefit pension and enjoying other valuable benefits.
Things changed rapidly for the worse in the early 1980s, which is why the idiotic far right nowadays talks of "making America great again". Cushy blue-collar jobs were drying up while decadent white yuppies blew everything that they had and more on high living. Old Guy's generation, namely Generation X, were urged to finish high school, because prospects for dropouts were rapidly deteriorating. Old Guy remembers hearing in the late 1970s that soon one the job of garbage collector would require a high-school diploma. His was the first generation in living memory that made less money than the one before.
Just a few years later, when Old Guy did finish high school, Generation X was being told to go on to university, as a high-school diploma was worth next to nothing. And the universities needed lakes of young blood on which to feed their bloated staffs of baby boomers. Thus Generation X was herded into universities, which happily instituted remedial programs for the hordes of "students" unable to read their high-school diplomas. By then, however, university was no longer cheap; nobody could pay for it with the money saved from bagging groceries the prior summer. It was terribly expensive, and those of us with no trust fund or Daddy Warbucks had to borrow five-figure sums at high interest in order to pay for it—without access to bankruptcy, a cherished tactic of baby-boomer yuppies eager to rid themselves of responsibility for their irresponsibility.
Generation X finished university with poor prospects. The few jobs to be found were often temporary, short-term endeavors. The word pension sounded obsolete. When everyone and her pet gerbil had a bachelor's degree, the things were all but worthless. How else to distinguish oneself but with a master's degree? (The baby boomers themselves had just come out of their fad of pursuing an MBA, often at an employer's expense. But an MBA or any other degree loses its prestige when everyone in town has a fistful of them.)
Naturally, the Degree Scam, already well under way, was delighted to expand the offerings. Sign up for a Master's of Fine Arts, a Master's of Creative Writing, a Master's of This, a Master's of That! And of course law school is the all-purpose solution, since You Can Do Anything with a Law Degree (cue jaunty music from the Roaring Twenties). So law schools spread like kudzu to the point that you could hardly throw a brick without breaking the office window of some fat-assed boomer pig who wolfs down red-velvet cupcakes while being fanned by her rented slaves on a package tour in Kenya or some born-with-a-silver-spoon-up-my-ass princess who oppresses those with the temerity to criticize her scholarshit about the Open Road. Insidiously, the boomer scamsters touted their extremely costly offerings—funded with non-dischargeable federally guaranteed student loans at high interest rates—as opportunities for racialized and other groups on the receiving end of discrimination, without drawing attention to the fact that a bunch of mostly white, upper-class scamsters were lining their pockets with the proceeds of this allegedly eleemosynary campaign.
Generation X was royally fucked by the baby boomers, but it must be said that Generation X was also the last generation for which university made any financial sense at all (just barely, in Old Guy's case). Conventional Wisdom™ dispensed by the boomers, who fancy themselves the fount of all knowledge, treats "education" as an "investment". Careful readers will note the propagandistic bait-and-switch ploy that equates education (properly understood as self-cultivation) with institutional dispensations (degrees issued by universities) and investment (placement of money for an anticipated gain) with expenditure (payment of whatever monstrous amount the universities demand). (On the subject of "investment", note politicians' tendency to speak of investments rather than expenditures. "We are investing $1 billion in our armed forces." No, you are spending—squandering—that money.) If going to university were truly an investment, we'd expect to see an analysis of the expected gains and the risks. Yet we never see one. Instead, paying whatever the universities charge is an "investment", and that's the end of the matter.
What worked for the baby boomers, however, does not work today. The baby boomers paid pocket change for their degrees and got good jobs. Hell, baby boomers without a degree, without even a high-school diploma, were better off than most of today's young graduates of law school, even before we take student loans into account. So tell the baby boomers to stick their Conventional Wisdom™ up their ass. Don't fall for it.
It is difficult to encourage independent thought in the anti-intellectual US, but Old Guy is going to try. Consider that your effort to break into the legal "profession" would require at least seven years of university, not to mention preparation for one or more bar exams. During that time, your earned income is likely to be very low. Instead of going for a mythological career in law, you could get a job right after high school, live cheaply, save much of your income, invest in index-linked ETFs with low managerial fees, and be well on your way to an early retirement while some dolt of your age is still struggling with the formation of contracts over at Cooley. Or you could go to trade school, work as a paid apprentice, and be fully licensed around the time that dolt first showed up for classes in a Cooley sweatshirt. By the time the Cooleyite in the polyester-covered mortarboard was applying for food stamps and receiving bills for student loans well into the six figures, you'd have a respectable nest egg, and almost certainly far better prospects of income for the rest of your days.
Knowing full well that few of his readers will perform the exercise described above, Old Guy will reduce his recommendations to a form that will fit on an index card, if not a bumper sticker:
1) Consider university if you are going into medicine or nursing AND can succeed AND have figured out how you are going to pay for it AND have a serious Plan B.
2) Go ahead and attend university if you have the money to blow on it AND don't need to earn an income with the anticipated degree.
3) Otherwise, DO NOT GO TO UNIVERSITY.
If you've already finished university and are now contemplating law school, the advice is the same, except that you can drop item (1).