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Lawyers play a relatively small role in the American workforce, but they seem to play a big role in the American imagination. Television shows such as The Good Wife and Suits portray a luxurious and exciting lifestyle at “Big Law” and boutique law firms, while Law and Order depicts district attorneys working relentlessly in the pursuit of justice. And mainstream media follows the developments in legal education with a level of interest that seems out of proportion with its relevance to their readership.
As they continue to read articles about the legal education crisis in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, many people may wonder: Why do we care so much about law school? For higher education policymakers, though, it may be more worthwhile to consider: Why should we care about legal education?
As a matter of scale, it seems silly to spend much time thinking about law school. Last year only about 155,000 students were enrolled at law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, or ABA, whereas almost 6 million students were enrolled in degree programs at community colleges that same year. But the small scale of the legal education sector is exactly why it may be worth some attention.
A recent New York Times article on the economics of law school described legal education as “a singular creature of American capitalism, one that is so durable that it seems utterly impervious to change.” But to those who work in higher education policy, the story of impossibly high demand even in the face of climbing tuition and low success rates seems all too familiar.
It’s certainly the story of for-profit colleges that tend to charge extremely high rates to students who will make modest salaries, if they graduate at all. And in many ways, it’s the story of all American colleges—most of which continue to raise their prices without ever having to account for whether they deliver a service of value.
The reason to focus on law school is not, as The New York Times claims, that it is a peculiar form of education. It’s that legal education suffers from many of the same doubts and problems that plague all of higher education. But with only 198 fully ABA-approved law schools in operation, legal education is the bite-sized version of the phenomena that are forcing change in all of our colleges. And, like for-profit colleges, law schools primarily prepare students for a well-defined career area, making it easier to assess how well they serve their students.
Of course, there are some key differences between law schools and, say, community colleges. Law students have already graduated from some kind of undergraduate program, proving that they have the skills and resources to carry them through a postsecondary program, making completion rates less of a concern. Because law schools have a selective admissions process, their students probably will not need any kind of remedial education—a huge part of the services community colleges provide their students. And law students tend to be more informed consumers of information about their education than other students. But these differences actually help narrow our focus to the issues that bridge across legal education and undergraduate programs, including questions of cost, quality, and preparedness for employment.
This report explores the field of legal education with the hope that putting a magnifying glass to this small part of higher education will help us better understand the problems that face all colleges. It details the steady rise in law school enrollment, despite high tuition rates and a heavy reliance on student loan debt. And it describes the unpleasant surprise that awaits law students upon graduation: Though a few lucky grads will make more than $130,000 per year, most new lawyers can expect annual salaries of around $63,000. With monthly loan payments near $1,000, graduates are finding that membership in the legal profession is not the golden ticket they thought it would be.
These observations show that in legal education—as in the rest of higher education— forces such as rising tuition and limited availability of jobs are changing the value proposition of earning a degree. Schools, students, and policymakers, however, are slow to respond.
Schools assume that since students absorbed previous tuition hikes with student loans, they will continue to do so, and that today’s stagnant methods of delivering legal education will always be the best choice. Students assume that the big payoff to legal education will always be the same, encouraging them to take on debt that they can only pay if they earn top salaries. And policymakers assumed by passing off quality-control functions to accreditors, they could rest assured that the federal investment in student loans was secure.
Accrediting agencies—voluntary membership organizations comprised of colleges and universities—purport to certify the quality of postsecondary institutions. But recent scrutiny of the accreditation process shows that their focus on the inputs of a college program rather than its outputs results in a system that lets in subpar traditional institutions and often keeps out innovative nontraditional programs.
The crisis in higher education these days is not that college is no longer “worth it.” It’s that the value proposition for a college degree—in this case, a law degree—is changing, but schools, students, and policymakers have not changed with it. As the value of a college degree fluctuates, students must adjust their plans regarding attendance and financing accordingly. And colleges must strive for innovations in educational delivery that both improve education and contain costs. Finally, policymakers must make sure that accreditors not only ensure quality but also encourage their members to provide a high-value education to students.
To facilitate more flexibility on the part of students, schools, and policymakers, the following policy changes should be implemented:
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics should collect and publish average employment and salary data for recent entrants into an occupation.
- Accreditors in all sectors of higher education should create standard definitions for employment and salary statistics, and require member schools to make such information readily available to students. Accreditors should audit member schools’ adherence with these standards from time to time.
- The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity should conduct a review and submit a report to Congress and the Department of Education on accrediting standards that stifle innovation or drive up tuition costs in higher education.
- Congress should provide funds to colleges through the Fund for Innovation in Postsecondary Education for projects that use technology or other innovative solutions to drive down tuition costs while maintaining or improving educational quality.
Julie Margetta Morgan is a Policy Analyst with the Postsecondary Education Program at American Progress.
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