Wednesday, October 27, 2010

See you in court? Not if you’ll give me my law school tuition back

The other day, the Boston Herald had an article on a BC Law student who had written an open letter (posted on BC Law’s online newspaper) to the acting dean asking for his money back.  This fellow, in his third year and facing a really dreadful job market, cast a cold, clear eye on his prospects and figured out he’d be better off cutting his losses.  Actually, he wasn’t looking to cut his losses. He was looking to get his losses restored.

In return, he pointed out that if he were off the books, it would (marginally) improve BC’s statistics about employment among its grads. 
The student offered to leave law school without a degree at the end of the semester in exchange for a full tuition refund — a move the erstwhile aspiring attorney says would help BC’s US News ranking because it wouldn’t have to report another graduate’s state of unemployment
While he wasn’t threatening to sue BC for his refund, the story roamed into that direction and the general legal-eagle consensus seems to be that the unfortunate 3L doesn’t have a claim. And, needless to say, BC Law hasn’t gotten out its checkbook.

I went over eagleionline to check out the full, agonized and agonizing letter, and, of course, to graze through the kabillion comments weighing in on the situation. (Since they’re not looking for work that doesn’t exist, law students apparently have a lot of time for commentary.)
The [name redacted], 3L, ‘I want my money back’ student reported that he and others in his class are:
… discouraged, scared, and in many cases, feeling rather hopeless about our chances of ever getting to practice law.
Discouraged, scared, and in many cases hopeless are, of course, not sentiments restricted to those who fear they will never get the opportunity to practice law. Add on the discourage, scared, and hopeless blue collar workers for whom jobs likely won’t be coming back any time soon, and who don’t have the construction boom to pick up the factory jobs slack.  Then there are the kids coming out of college with newly minted, and hopelessly impractical, degrees in whatever it was they were passionate about (that did not include engineering or accounting) – and who, like the law student, are saddled with debt that’s just incredible. (One commenter on the eagleionline site claimed that she and her husband – both law students – are carrying $600K in debt. Yowza!  There’s a lifetime of working down that one.)  Then there are the laid off fifty- and sixty-somethings who no one wants to hire, and whose 401K’s are in the crapper, and whose dreams of retiring on their house appreciation are in there with the 401K’s.

Yep. Discouraged, scared, and feeling rather hopeless is pretty much the national mood these days, as three decades of globalization, skating on thin ice, and generally crazy-cat behavior have caught up with us, big time.  (Ah, all those years of Roadrunner – beep-beep – running off the cliff and staying in mid-air until he looked down. Geronimo!)

The 3L, naturally, cites the debt he’s accumulated. I absolutely feel very badly for those coming out of school owing all that money that they can’t even shake-off with a bankruptcy. 

I was fortunate to go to school when it didn’t cost all that much, and you worked at any crummy job you could find to make up the difference between whatever you got for scholarships and/or from your parents, and what school cost. Nobody worried about whether the job was career-building.  We were lucky enough that no one expected a college kid to have done much career building (a concept we'd never heard of).  Those doing the hiring expected that kids out of college would have had summer and term jobs as: waitresses, camp counselors, typists, sales clerks, surveyors, construction workers, lifeguards, bus boys, factory hands, cafeteria workers, taxi drivers, etc.

Without sounding like Laura Ingalls Wilder here, I’m also of the generation that didn’t expect or even want much more out of the college experience than just being away from home. (Yahoo!)  The facilities were lousy – spartan, cement block dorms for many of us.  Food was starchy, filling, and lousy – and if you didn’t like the glop being served, you were free to pay for something else, elsewhere. (That’s one of the reasons we needed those marginal jobs.) No food courts for us, where we could buy stuff we liked with smartcards.  We had to truck to some crummy coffee shop or grocery store and pay cash. Many the evening’s my dinner was ice cream with jimmies from a place we called “Dirty Drug.”

No fancy gym facilities, either, so our costs didn’t include upkeep of 24/7 access to ellipticals. (Fitness had not yet been invented.) Everyone I hung around with was happy wearing clothing from Army-Navy surplus stores (how fondly I remember that pea coat from Mickey Finn’s).  Unless you were a commuter – and probably not even then – no one had a car. (Or almost no one: I had a friend who had an old Jaguar. Her father was rumored to be in The Mob.)

When I went to business school, I did have to borrow some money – but not as much as I might have. My grandmother died a few months before I started, and I inherited $4K. (Yes, I have been an heiress, and I can tell you and Paris Hilton that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.)

What debt I acquired in business school was closer to $6K than to $600K, and paid it back as quickly as I could once I started working.

Fortunate me:
Tuition and housing costs nearly $60,000 a year at BC Law School. The school’s Web site says 97.6 percent of the Class of 2009 got jobs in law firms, government, business or academia, with a median “private sector” salary of $160,000; $35,000 in the “public sector” and $57,000 in “government.” (Source: Boston Herald article)
$60K a year!

I guess the student who claimed $600K in debt either had undergrad loans and/or lived large.

Still, try paying back $600K or even $180K - on a salary of $160K, let alone on $35K from a “public sector” job – whatever that is; public defender maybe?

The pained and plaintive – or is he trying to make a “humorous” point that BC should be warning students that their legal education may well be a losing proposition - BC Law student’s name was redacted, but I’m sure the “everyone” knows who he is. There are way too many telling details: former teacher, pregnant wife, etc. 

I certainly hope that, having gotten this screed off of his chest, he feels better.

But the whole thing reminds me of a video I saw year’s ago of Jack Welch in some kind of feedback session with young GE professionals.

There was one guy – named Kelly, I believe – who started talking about how long and hard he worked.

I suppose he was hoping that Jack would thank or praise him for giving GE his all – atta, boy, Kelly -  but old Jack just jumped down the kid’s throat and reamed him. If you’re working that hard, you’re doing something wrong…

I’m sure that Kelly slunk back to his GE-land cube, understanding that his career was likely no longer hi-pot (high potential) and completely mortified that, not only had Jack made him look like a fool in front of his peers, but the entire shambles had been video’d, so that complete strangers all over the place were getting to see it. (This was pre YouTube, of course.  I saw it as part of some business off-site.)

Anyway, I hadn’t thought of poor Kelly in years, but the 3L’s letter brought it back to mind.

The lesson, I guess, is that there are some things that you’re best off keeping to yourself. And woe-is-me pissing and moaning is one of them.


Rick said...

Forty years ago, did every campus have a place called "the dirty drug"? That was the main non-institutional eating place on the Penn campus when I was there in the 1960s.

This law student wanting his money back is interesting on a number of counts, as I suppose a prosecutor might say.

First, the debt level this poor sucker will face is truly astounding compared to what we paid, as you point out. Inflation in tuitions for higher education has been running well above general inflation rates for decades. A vicious cycle causes it: constituents beg politicians for some assistance to pay hefty tuitions, Congress passes bills to increase availability of money for college loans, and the universities react by raising their tuitions even higher to grab that extra money, causing constituents to ask the government for more help, etc.

Second, universities have established themselves as the repository of virtue in society, with professors regularly distinguishing their enlightened quest for knowledge from the grubby and greedy business world, where everyone is just out for themselves regardless of the consequences. In fact, universities and their employees are as greedy and sleazy as everyone else. The shortage of jobs for law school graduates has been apparent for quite a few years now. If universities were truly moral, they would have cut the size of their admissions to the various professional schools to better match expected demand for graduates of those programs. But no, these schools are big money makers for the universities, and if anything they have been expanding them. It is a fraud against the dummies who pay all that money and mistakenly think they will ever pay those loans back.

Regardless of its claims, how can you tell if an organization of any kind (corporate, government, academic, NGO, etc.) is corrupt or at least morally compromised? Simple: it is, if those running it are human beings.

Maureen Rogers said...

Rick - There are a couple of hundred law schools in the country. No doubt we could use a lot fewer.

Meanwhile, I think the points you make about law schools tamping down admissions, given the outlook for lawyers, are particularly acute with respect to second tier schools like BC.

Let's face it, someone spending $10K to go to night school at Joe's Law School in East Cupcake has different expectations than someone forking over $60K at BC. Joe's grads know that they're not going to be clerking for one of the Supremes, and probably "get" on some level that they'll most likely be chasing ambulances and doing divorce work. While BC grads may understand that the likelihood of clerking for a Supreme is low, they have imbibed the Kool-aid, and believed that there will be all sorts of $160K jobs for them out there. This at a time when even the grads of the "true" top tiers are being deferred and logging time in pro-bono outfits waiting for a callback from the well-known white-shoe firm. Who knows? Maybe the firms that used to recruit at the BC's and the BU's of the world now figure they can trade up and grab a grateful Harvard, Yale, Columbia grad for the same amount.

Meanwhile, with respect to the corrupt or morally compromised nature of all institutions, I may not have put it in those terms, but isn't survival the first principle of every institution? That, of course, means doing what you need to do - and for law schools, that means continuing to let in lots of students. Got to keep those law profs employed!

In the long run, however, there will have to be a shakeout. Colleges and universities that send graduates crippled with unsupportable debt into a weak and crazily competitive job market...this can't be sustainable. It's hard to believe that we won't be seeing a lot more marginal colleges - and law schools - give way to the new model: "traditional" schools for the elite (financial and meritocratic), and job-focused community colleges and online for everyone else.

Rick said...

"Meanwhile, with respect to the corrupt or morally compromised nature of all institutions, I may not have put it in those terms, but isn't survival the first principle of every institution? That, of course, means doing what you need to do"

I'm not saying that universities are more corrupt than anyone else, but they are no less so. At least businesses don't pretend that they are mere seekers of knowledge or "educators" out to advance the public welfare, with little concern for their own welfare, as do the universities and, to name another culprit, teachers unions.

If all someone wants is to learn something, they can do better by reading Wikipedia articles and their cited sources, plus maybe a little YouTube for hands on knowledge, than they get in the vast bulk of university courses. That won't give them any writing skills, but they can learn that as I have, by writing crackpot responses to interesting blog posts. They won't develop quite the partying skills that seems to be the main point of college these days, nor will they get the diploma credential, but they'll avoid the crushing debt. I expect many more young people to be going that route from now until the economy gets a lot stronger, which won't be until many years from now IMO.

Cathy said...


Does anyone major in English anymore? There were no ROI calculations connected with getting a college education in 1972 when I graduated. My first job out of Emma paid $65 a week. I told my father it was such a fantastic opportunity so that I wouldn't have to move back home.

It is unfortunate that college tuition at private schools has gone out of control. If the demand drops, so will the tuition maybe. Or our taxes will go up when UMASS gets 150,000 more applications from BC college wannabees and public education will require more resources to operate.

Anyway, I enjoyed your post very much! It was very reminiscent of the good old days when life was cheaper and my expectations were lower!