August 15, 2011 1 Comment
Education is a product. That isn’t a popular idea these days. Schools like to pretend they have some sort of noble goal of educating students and broadening their minds. Schools wish to pretend they do these noble deeds without a profit motive and they scoff at the idea of for profit education. The idea that the world of education is dominated by altruistic good deed doers who educate for the love of education is of course ridiculous. It is also contrary to how the education sector behaves. We’ll focus exclusively on higher education in this entry. We’ll save K-12 for another day.
College is a product. When a school sends out brochures or puts together a website for prospective students, they’re not being nice guys showing 18 year olds the ropes. They’re selling these kids a product. They’re in competition with other colleges and universities, even if they pretend that competition is limited to the football field or basketball court. The fact is, each school markets itself against all other schools. Some colleges focus on particular programs, others focus on the quality of their dorms or the fun associated with their football team. In the end, they’re competing for your tuition dollars. But don’t tell the communists in the Poly Sci department that.
One of the ways in which colleges sell themselves in by telling prospective students of the wonderful high paying jobs they’ll have when they graduate. When I started law school at Case Western Reserve in 2000 the school boasted that nearly all graduates got jobs within 9 months of graduation. The median salary was nearly $100,000. That’s quite a boast but when you’re charging $21,000 a year a school needs to be able to promise that the degree earned will be worth something when a student graduates. Otherwise, it isn’t worth the money.
Today Case Western Reserve’s law school charges around $42,500. That doesn’t include books or room and board. Their web site claims those expenses could add up to $17,000 or more. In total Case is a $60,000 a year commitment. Mind you, this is a first tier law school. It has a fine reputation. But is it worth $60,000 a year in tuition and expenses? As a graduate, I’ll tell you it isn’t worth it.
The New York Times recently reported on the upswing of law graduates who can’t get jobs in the legal profession. They have non-dischargable loans in the hundreds of thousands and no prospect of getting a good paying job. Jobs at big law firms are drying up. The days of people graduating into $100,000+ jobs are gone. Perhaps the top graduates can get those jobs, at least at the higher tier schools. But that isn’t reality for 95% of graduates of those schools. It’s even less a reality for lower tier schools.
Cooley Law School is being sued by several of its graduates. These graduates claim that Cooley enticed them into buying education from them with exaggerated claims of employment and salary. The fact is, these graduates are probably right. Schools are exaggerating claims of employment, including even those graduates who bus tables as being “employed.” Sure those people are employed, but not as lawyers. Schools also cook the books by claiming exaggerated salaries. Whether Cooley is doing that remains to be seen. It wouldn’t surprise me though.
This sort of thing isn’t unique to law schools. It happens throughout higher education. People buy education without considering that it is a product. They buy the lines that schools give about noble goals and other such hog wash. College is a product and whether you like hearing it or not, it’s not a product that is worth what they say it’s worth. With all due respect to my alma mater, Case isn’t worth $40,000+ a year. It was barely worth $21,000 when I was there. You can extend this argument to all of higher education as costs skyrocket and job availability and salary decline.
Americans need to start re-thinking the value of higher education. We need to start considering whether it’s really necessary for middle managers to have a college degree with a major in history or music appreciation. Do insurance adjusters really need to have a college degree? In our personal lives, we really need to consider whether it’s worth it to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt. For some professions and at some schools, it may very well be worth it. But for a lot of schools and a lot of professions, the education isn’t worth the debt. Schools are selling you a product and they’re exaggerating what their product is worth. They’re no different than the sellers of hand soap or aspirin. They exaggerate their claims and fudge the numbers. It’s time for consumers of education to start acting like consumers.