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“Scamblogs” and Reflections on American Higher Education

September 11, 2011

After a last few hectic but productive days in Omaha, your humble narrator made his way safely back home to Los Angeles. As hinted at in a previous post, however, I now find myself in the middle of a road trip to Northern California. After shuttling around various parts of the Los Angeles metroplex for the last day and a half – and being deprived of much precious blogging time throughout! – we set out early from the San Fernando Valley this morning, and made our way up through the state on US 101. The more time I spend away from America, the more certain aspects of everyday American experience dazzle. There are perhaps too many chain restaurants like Chipotle, Panera, Jamba Juice, etc. – good but homogenous – that dot the landscape, but few other countries that I have visited have multiethnic enclaves like the Korean area of LA we visited, whose fantastic restaurants provide upward mobility to Korean immigrants and a chance for non-ethnic-identifying whites to try something more cosmopolitan for dinner. The San Fernando Valley is a drag, but we soon found ourselves gliding through groves of trees just south of San Jose, and along the way up the state, I was surprised by dynamic but cute downtown San Luis Obispso, a college town halfway between San Jose and Los Angeles.

San Luis Obispo: Cute and Cool

In this post, I want to discuss a movement and an aspect of American higher education that I’ve been reading about and observing for some time, almost a year now – the so-called “scam blog” movement, a loosely arrayed group of blogs, discussion forums, and individuals who argue, to put it concisely, that American law schools are running a scam. Put another way, the cost of higher education, both in terms of real dollars as well as opportunity costs, at American law schools cannot be justified today. Or so they argue. Some representatives of the movement include (more colloquially) the message boards JDUnderground and XOXOHTH; perhaps the most eloquent blogger on the subject is Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, a top 25 law school in the USA.

Whenever I mention to friends that I follow this developing story, they’re perplexed. My father was a lawyer, but I’ve hardly ever evinced any interest in going to law school. So why follow law school forums? I can concede that there all, all things considered, healthier things in life. But I suspect the real reason why I find following this story – which has been followed in the major national press, including the New York Times - is that larger structural features and flaws of American higher education that it reveals. It suggests how a bankrupt economy of prestige may play too large a role in American life. It shows the extent to which personal debt financing of higher education plays a major role in this country, and often times limits Americans from  making major life choices – starting a business, getting married, having children, owning a house. And while there is good reason to believe that may of the perverse features this movement of bloggers and concerned individuals has unearthed are unique to law schools, as opposed to medical schools or PhD programs, the buffet of perverse incentives and cases of exploitation one discovers here can lead to renewed skepticism or a critical attitude towards the political economy of other graduate programs in this country, or abroad.

Harvard Law School: A Bad Deal?

So what is the nature of the criticism? Some historical perspective might be useful. In the 1970s, the annual tuition at most law schools in the country – the same was true of many professional schools was approximately $6,000 – $8,000. Adjusted for inflation in 2011 terms, this was still relatively expensive, but graduating students with, say, $25,000 worth of student loan debt could count, perhaps with some difficulty, on getting jobs with starting salaries in that range, maybe towards the range of $30-40,000 a year if they were lucky. Student loan debts were fairly high – you were paying for three years of professional education, after all – but the cost of an education was less than, and in only rare cases greater than the starting salary of an attorney in many American metro areas. Moreover, in the rare case that someone did end up completely screwed, and needed some route to financially reboot their life, there was the option of defaulting on their loans and declaring bankruptcy. This would destroy their credit rating, but at least much of one’s personal debt was off the books or favorable restructured.

Flash forward to today, and the situation has been reversed. Annual tuition costs at many American law schools can be in the neighborhood of $40,000 or even $50,000, but starting salaries at most law firms are less than $150,000 for first-year attorneys. It becomes more and more onerous to pay back student loan debt, even for young professionals in their early 30s. True, medical students endure far heavier student loan debts and have to go through a longer period of professional training, but in many medical subfields, like dermatology, annual salaries can reach the upper six-figure range. That’s not the case for a majority of lawyers, who can remain chipping away at their student loan debt well into their 30s. Moreover – and this does not apply just for law students – American federal regulations regarded bankruptcy were changed in ways unfavorable to the average student. After President Clinton had vetoed an earlier version of it, the Bush Administration and a Republican Congress passed bankruptcy “reform” in 2005. The new regulation made it almost impossible for people with student loans, even those from for-profit loanmaking outfits, to discharge their student loan obligations in bankruptcy. Potentially, people who had made an unwise choice in financing their education could have their wages garnished, or their Social Security checks garnished or withheld decades later. Student loan debt assumed a privileged position in American financing: unlike most other kinds of debt, it became virtually impossible to get rid of. Combined with stagnant wages in the American economy since the late 1970s, the result is a generation of Americans with high debt loads, grim job prospects, and an inability to make mature steps forward in life. Innumerable media profiles have documented the plight of young Americans with these massive debt loads. In September of last year, The New York Times reported on how these huge debt loads – often held by young lawyers unable to find legitimate long-term work – have ruined relationships. Coldly, cruelly – but perhaps wisely – some people are reluctant to marry someone with $200,000 or more in student loans, and no real plan to remove the chains.

Because life is nasty, brutish, and short if you're not at the top

At this point in the story, our friends of free markets and informed consumer choice should step in to save the day. But they don’t. Until very recently, student enrollment numbers at American law schools rose every year, even as fewer and fewer jobs were available. In spite of mounds of public evidence, many young people apparently thought it was worth the debt and the opportunity cost of three years out of the workforce, often at low-prestige institutions, to attend law school. Why?

One major culprit in the mess has to be U.S. News and World Report, which starting in 1983 began to publish its now-famous (at least for most Americans) college and professional school rankings. Americans, I will hold, love rankings (they’re also easier to write for journalists). And the stats show it. In 2007, for example, U.S. News’ college rankings achieved the following:

  • within 3 days of the rankings release, the U.S. News website received 10 million page views compared to 500,000 average views in a typical month
  • 80 percent of visitors access the ranking section of the website directly rather than navigating via the magazine’s home page
  • the printed issue incorporating its college rankings sells 50 percent more than its normal issues at the newsstand
Ranking schools might be tasteless and lurid, but is there really anything morally hazardous about it? Much of the experience of law students in the USA in the last twenty-five years would suggest so. Many of the publicly-listed factors that play a role in U.S. News’ algorithm for generating their ranks affect the cost of education without improving its quality. In many editions of the rankings, the amount of money schools spent per student was listed as a relevant factor, for example. However, in many cases this reflected less a huge trust fund being lavished on delighted students than huge construction projects on campus fueled in large part by student-loan money disbursed to these very institutions. Throughout it all, a growing obsession with prestige among the baby-boom generation, the need to brag about one’s children, and the striving for celebrity and prestige in a democratic society all played a role, too. Law school was still seen as high-status, prestigious, and a good way to spend one’s twenties: even better if the school had a brand-new rock climbing wall.
More problematically, the percentage of students employed after graduation, and their median salary, became an important factor in the U.S. News rankings. On face, this seemed perfectly legitimate. The problem was, many law schools began to fudge their numbers. Both employment percentages as well as starting salaries were fudged at the same time that schools demanded exorbitant sums from students, via the loan complex, to build pharonic law school buildings and pay faculty, many of whom had limited actual litigation experience, to teach coursework and write scholarship that few people actually read. (This goes into a side discussion about the value of legal scholarship, or “Law and …” scholarship that uses law as a lens to examine literature, gender studies, cultural studies, and so on – an interesting debate but one I don’t want to get into in this essay.) Regardless of the intrinsic value of some of this scholarship, a much smaller percentage of students getting JDs want to become legal scholars than PhD students want to become professors; a professional school was staffed by academics, arguably a misallocation of talent and resources. Finally, many law schools have been exposed as offering so-called “Potemkin jobs.” If the University of Podunksville Law School cannot find legitimate work for most of its graduates, it will create “fellowships” funded by the school’s trust-fund to keep their graduates “employed” … at least until the accounting came due for the next edition of U.S. News and World Report. In short, a rankings system devised as a way to keep a failing business model afloat went from being a semi-useful descriptive device, to a prescriptive device on how to commit fraud and lead young Americans into financial plight.

The Thinker - Yours for $200,000+

To return to the question of why Tim reads these blogs, many of the problems I’ve just described apply especially to law schools, but they are also characteristic of much of higher education in the United States as a whole. And insofar as we ought to value higher education as something good in our society – a vehicle for class mobility, an institution to host intellectuals, places for (ideally) unconventional thinking, bases for authors or scholars to produce cultural goods that markets don’t respond to in the same way, as, say, The Jersey Shore - it is also important to critically examine the finances behind these instituions. It’s critical to examine the levels of personal debt (credit card debt, student loan debt, and mortgage debt) in the USA as part of our long-term challenge for national greatness, and for people to be able to achieve a standard of living, education, and housing that befits a country we want to live in.
So what are some of the crucial differences? And for readers more like your humble narrator – someone personally more interested in History, in historical scholarship, which at the present moment is dominated professionally by the universities – what are some of the evasive maneuvers that divisions of higher education outside of law could take to ensure their long-term viability and relevance? One crucial difference, it seems to me, is that the profession of law remained respectable and prestigious much longer in the USA than it probably should have, or at least compared to the prestige of pursuing a doctoral degree. In many other countries around the world, it’s quite common for political candidates to have PhDs. Germany’s former Defense Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, was forced to resign this year on charges that he had plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation for the University of Bayreuth; Iran is partly governed by not Mr., but Dr. (in civil engineering) Ahmadinejad. American policy élites, however, tend to be lawyers, which may have kept the prestige of the degree up higher. While plenty of people still flock to PhD programs as a refuge from the working world, there simply may not be the demand-side push to create the room for perverse incentives that we have seen in the humanities. Another crucial difference – but one that increasingly applies only to top programs – is that PhD programs, at least most reputable ones, are usually fully-funded: students get a full-tuition scholarship and a reasonable living stipend. Career prospects may often be grim, and you may be losing out on four to eight years of experience in the working world, but at least you’re not going into straight-up debt for your education as a PhD student in most cases today.
At the same time, there are some worrying parallels. Placement statistics are still too difficult to find for most schools, especially PhD programs. Moreover, the problem of Potemkin jobs is a frequent one in American academia, too. I was perusing the website of a prestigious History Department at a large American research university a few weeks ago, and at first glance their placement record seemed impressive: almost everyone with jobs, post-docs, several with tenure-track jobs, even. But when I took a closer look, many of them had simply been appointed to one-year psuedo-post-docs at the very same institution with a job title of Lecturer. These people will be able to survive and get on for another year, but they will often do so at the cost of making steps forward into a more adult life – decisions I mentioned earlier about relationships, marriage, ownership, the ability to earn and invest capital, etc. On a similar note, many great American foundations support post-doctoral programs and equivalent two-year “New Faculty Fellowships” at American universities whereby the Mellon Foundation pays universities to take on humanities PhDs for employment. To be clear, I think it’s wonderful that institutions like the Mellon Foundation support this, but it’s hardly a good situation professionally for these people – let alone with regards to their ability to settle down, have a family, own, invest, etc. – if they are still forced to get on with, in effect, two-year fellowships as their main source of income well into their 30s. Good luck attracting new people into the professor if this is what they have to look forward to.

Grigoryi Potemkin: Lover, Statesman, Economic Theorist for 21st-Century America?

Still, to close, let’s think about some constructive proposals. Some are psychological and cultural; others are institutional. Culturally, broadly speaking, we have to move from a culture that values prestige and consumption to one that values work, accomplishment, investment, and net worth more. Reading these forums and blogs, and speaking with friends who have attended some of these élite institutions, I am continually surprised by the shift in tone among people as they progress up the Great Chain of Being within the American law establishment, or within American academic institutions. Forums devoted towards people who are primarily applying are giddy in tone. Even people who are applying to, frankly, law schools that should be shut down, are thrilled to have been accepted somewhere and excited to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to go.
Further up the food chain, some students at more élite law schools can radiate an aura of inevitability – that because they’ve made it to this level of prestige, they’re bound to have an easier walk later in life. And true, going to, say, Yale Law School may be a better recipe for long-term success than being a janitor, or maybe even a garbageman. But the tone shifts dramatically among 2Ls and 3Ls I know. They’ve seen the state of the job market in on-campus interviews. They’ve come to learn what six-figure debt actually means. Part of the problem, in other words, has to do with the rise of a prestige-driven culture in non-technical fields in the USA, and perhaps the rise of “the campus experience” as part of how people think about higher education. People don’t celebrate getting into a Hadoop course, or signing up for training in Urdu to be a diplomat or development working in the same way they do law school, or some graduate schools. Both of these skills may well earn you more and lead to a more interesting life than a law degree today. So why the difference in cultural cachet? I hope that debt loads and the sheer inexorability of finance will erode this culture over time. But many people will be disappointed along the way.
Culturally, in other words, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if graduate schools, or education, became less culturally professionalized and more about the acquisition of specific skills, preferably with some project along the way. Professional culture among law students has, in the reading I’ve done, led to loads of heartbroken, unemployed law school grads who feel lost. Within the humanities, say in history, there are certain skills that are indispensable - learning how to read documents critically, some training in evidentiary standards, foreign languages. And the space that doctoral programs provide to execute a big project in the form of the dissertation can be wonderful. But when I look at how some historians appear to only write for other historians, I worry. And it’s not totally clear to me that late 20th and early 21st century history as written by PhD-credentialed historians is obviously better, holistically, than what less credentialed Victorians or late-19th and early-20th century Russians wrote.
Institutionally, I think some reforms are inevitable, and I outlined some of them in one of my first blog posts. While I argue often with libertarian friends on the role of the market, I think some liberalization of the rules on student loan debt could do a lot of good for higher education, especially with regards to the law school problem. I see no reason why institutions should be guaranteed to federally-backed student loans if they are unable to lead to their graduates being able to pay back those loans, for example. With gushers of federal, taxpayer-funded money coming into institutions, especially law schools, we have a highly anti-competitive situation. Low-ranked law schools like Thomas Jefferson School of Law, which has hugely expensive facilities but low employment statistics, should be free to operate as non-profit institutions, but if their education appears to be serving little public good, why should the U.S. taxpayer be willing to finance students to go there? If individuals want to take their chances and go, I see no harm in this, especially if they are paying in cash, but I would be more comfortable with a system in which loan-makers were free to discriminate among potentially borrowers of student loan debt – and also hedge against the risk of default or bankruptcy. In an ideal world, institutions should be forced to compete against one another on quality, and loans should be available to those who can make a compelling case they can pay the loan back (via gainful employment afterwards). If too many alumni of a school go bankrupt to finance their debt to the place, it probably shouldn’t exist in the first place. And if you’re turned down for a loan to go to what the “scambloggers” call “Third-Tier Toilets” (i.e. low-ranked law schools), you should probably reconsider your career path, anyway.
None of these proposals are on the table for right now. One of the reforms to the debt complex enacted by the Obama Administration made things even worse by allowing loans to accrue interest while one is still in graduate school (prior to 2011, loans did not gather interest while in graduate school). However, with student loan debt close to $1 trillion in the USA today, and with stagnant prospects for job growth or wage growth, I expect this to remain a persistent issue over the next 5-10 years in America. Finding avenues to push forward an agenda that introduces smart competition-oriented reforms, and encourages personal responsibility while also preserving an escape hatch for the exploited, will have to be key. The current situation does not benefit the end user of education (students, or, arguably, employers and the society), and it prevents Americans from living more mature, more adult lives.
A final note: I’ll be on the road for much of this coming week, and wi-fi access may be spotty in parts of Northern California. Hence, updates may be spotty. Rest assured that I’m compensating by picking blackberries and floating down California’s cleanest rivers.
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