Monday, August 31, 2009

“Now is not the time for avoidance, denial or panic”

Those are the words of Assistant Dean (Career Services), Mark Weber, of the Harvard Law School in a March memo to his law students. The August 25th New York Times: “How bad is it? Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the juggernaut of New York, has slashed its hiring by more than half. For the first time in 136 years, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a respected Philadelphia firm, has canceled its recruiting entirely. Global firms like DLA Piper and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe have postponed recruiting for several months to see if the market improves… At Yale [generally ranked the top law school in the nation], students accustomed to being wooed by Big Law’s glittering names — like Baker & McKenzie; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, & McCloy; and White & Case — were stunned when those firms canceled interviews in New Haven this month.”

I’ve blogged about debt-laden medical students getting slammed by staffing cutbacks, salary cuts and rising costs of practicing medicine. I’ve noted MBA candidates (who draw a whole lot less sympathy than doctors) who’ve borrowed themselves silly to get a high-level degree only to find a tight job market and no takers. Professional graduate schools, providing advanced degrees in law, medicine and business, are very, very expensive and seldom provide the kind of financial aid of the less “pragmatic” academic graduate courses of study (with lower tuition as well)… except for those loans. Tuition at the top professional schools (without counting room and board) can rise to $40-50,000 a year (and higher), so graduating with serious six figures in debt is a really tough beginning for a young adult with hopes and dreams for the future.

Top laws schools have seen a third to half as many on-campus recruiters as in the recent past; small schools are often all but ignored completely. Not feelin’ it for these folks? The “kids” going to top law schools expecting $125-160,000 salaries a year find that their job offer has been withdrawn or postponed a year (some firms have offered half pay to those who wait)… or that the top firms aren’t even recruiting? What do you do with six figures of educational debt, no job and a questionable future? Does it matter that many top firms have contracted, letting go of mid-level partners, dropping associates like a dog shedding fleas? Applications to governmental legal openings have skyrocketed! What a surprise.

But this is a metaphor for America. High priced professorial talent (which is the rule in professional schools) – much like their corporate counterparts – have built their prestige and compensation on the back of higher tuition charged to students who have assumed a salary and career path that collapsed in this bubble. Students borrowed heavily, much like subprime homeowners and private equity acquisition companies, the sizeable sum required to get the education (sometimes with parental help). Borrowing – the American way. But these young folks are indeed our best and brightest (why couldn’t they just have picked engineering instead?), and it is reflection of our values that debt is often the cost of higher education at all levels.

Education is the great equalizer, the transition from poor and lower class to running America and sharing in its glory. It is one of the most democratizing aspects of American society, the place where the fire of American hope burns brightest. Even as our cash-strapped economy struggles to preserve our society and maintain some semblance of an educational system at all levels, isn’t it time to reexamine debt as the routine financial route to higher education? Shouldn’t we be looking to allow students to pay for their learning with differing factions of their future earning power, depending on the job path they select (teachers ride free!)? America needs the education; Americans don’t need more debt.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I approve this message.

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