Monday, February 15, 2010

NYTimes Letter: "The J.D. Myth"

Continuing with our recent theme of "interesting stuff written predominantly by other people," there was an interesting discussion on the NYTimes "Room for Debate" section titled "My M.A.: A Source of Pride and Regret," which was spun off of a previous series of op-eds titled "What is a Master's Degree Worth?" The letters and the articles go back and forth about what the value of a masters degree is in a given field. Strangely, one of the letters that the Times decided to publish was not on the value of a masters degree but rather on the value of a Juris doctor. It touched on the idea of public service, LRAP programs, and the like:

The J.D. Myth

Judging by the comments so far, I am surprised by the perception that a J.D. is considered a “good” degree to have and that while it is costly, it is relatively easy to pay off.

J.D.s are huge money makers for universities. They can charge students upwards of $40,000 annually while the cost to educate an individual student cannot conceivably rise to that level. All that is required is a number of large lecture halls, a decent library, and 50 or so professors. Universities can admit large numbers of students with virtually no additional cost to them (as opposed to a a higher degree in the science which may require significant investment in a lab facility, for example).

Idealists like myself are lulled into the belief that we are being educated for the greater good to help society. In my case, I went to law school to practice poverty law. I was assured by many practicing attorneys that it was feasible to simply take on the debt (in my case upwards of $140,000) because you will always have a job and be able to pay it off. While I have been fortunate to have a job practicing law, I am barely able to earn a living.

What is not considered or discussed are the implications of having that much debt while working for public interest organizations. My alma mater offers to contribute $3,000 a year towards my debt for 5 years (totaling $15,000) as long as I work in the requisite field, but this is a laughable contribution. Given the amount that I owe, if I choose to stay in the field — a commitment I made to myself — I won’t be able to do anything else. I can give up having a family, owning a house, or even retirement.

Sadly, I have become very cynical — quite different from the 23 year old idealist who started law school with dreams of helping others. I now see that I was enrolled in an overpriced institution where commitment to public interest is used to lure likeminded students into its halls in order to collect more money for its coffers. I feel deceived and regretful. I now tell potential law students to find another path. If you want to make a difference in the world, and have some measure of personal happiness and the ability to have choices in your life, law school is the wrong place to be. Unless you just want to give large sums of money to a greedy university.

— cynical idealist

Well, the problem with this reasoning is that a JD is really required for entry into the field of lawyering, which is not true in the case of many masters degrees (you don't need an M.A. in civil engineering to work as an engineer; you [often] don't need an M.A. in education to be a teacher.) And to be fair, as we understand it, the best law schools in the country actually lose money every year on a tuition / expenditure basis (with donations / endowment making up the shortfall). Indeed, we have not been silent in arguing against increases in tuition, we think that the problem (at UVA at least) more likely lies with spending priorities rather than the greediness of the greater University (the Law School isn't a cash cow for the University here, though that might be true at other places).

Still, it's hard not to sympathize with some aspects of "cynical idealist's" point of view - we hope that things get better for the writer.

My M.A.: A Source of Pride and Regret [N.Y. Times]
What is a Master's Degree Worth? [N.Y. Times]


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I will never understand the logic of thinking you need to assume 200k in debt to do poverty law. There are plenty of ways to be involved in the same issues that you would be without getting a JD. Go for the better money and be pissed when it doesn't work out, but don't cry about suddenly finding out the public service jobs don't pay well. You could have found out everything you needed to know before you went.

Anonymous said...

When do J-term grades come out?

Anonymous said...

I didn't know getting an MA in engineering was even possible.

Anonymous said...


I still am missing grades from last semester.

Anonymous said...

As long as the writer practices "poverty law" for 10 years, he/she is eligible for total loan forgiveness under IBR, right?

The situation's not quite so Dickensian.

Anonymous said...

J-Term grades are due in to SRO on Mar 1. Then will take a few days for the U to upload to SIS.

Anonymous said...

6:55 - I totally agree. Work harder to get a better LSAT score and get a scholarship to a lower-ranked school and if you can't do this then perhaps you should help the impoverished in a non-legal capacity.

Anonymous said...

8:28- Give it a rest, pal. Your 1-credit class isn't going to magically improve your job prospects.

Anonymous said...

I hear Kegler's had to cancel on Libelowski due to structural problems at the building. Libel show is scrambling for a replacement venue (looks like no bowling this year).

Anonymous said...

10:18 - Nice use of Dickensian

W/R/T 'cynical idealist' - this whine is incoherent and unpersuasive. A more interesting excerpt written by Columbia prof:

on big pic:

The next bubble to burst will be the education bubble. Make no mistake about it, education is big business and, like other big businesses, it is in big trouble. What people outside the education bubble don’t realize and people inside won’t admit is that many colleges and universities are in the same position that major banks and financial institutions are: their assets (endowments down 30-40 percent this year) are plummeting, their liabilities (debts) are growing, most of their costs are fixed and rising, and their income (return on investments, support from government and private donations, etc.) is falling.

on irrational behavior:

During times of financial stress, people become vulnerable and understandably seek to improve their situation in any way they can. For many, more education seems to be the solution. ...

When the economy goes down, applications to graduate programs go up.And now the economy makes matters worse. Only 19 percent of the class of 2009 had jobs at graduation. Furthermore, many recent graduates who are young professionals and had been working for a few years have been fired. They find themselves surfing the web looking for jobs, all while worrying about health benefits and repaying their student loans.

Anonymous said...

I could be wrong - but I seem to remember a UVA law budget of ~70M. Even if everyone paid tuition, it wouldn't make money with an endowment or alumni.