Essay on SSRN Id1967266

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A DEGREE OF PRACTICAL WISDOM:
THE RATIO OF EDUCATIONAL DEBT TO INCOME AS A
BASIC MEASUREMENT OF LAW SCHOOL GRADUATES’
ECONOMIC VIABILITY
Jim Chen †
Some people, short of money, have set upon new paths and saddled themselves with new debts. For the need to make a living is
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the root of all education.
The new gospel of higher education in America is return on investment. Why do most students attend law school? We know the standard answers. Most of us have written them: To advance justice. To serve the underprivileged. To right wrongs and ensure peace.
Most students, however, are motivated—at least partially and often substantially—by something else. They attend law school in order to make more money.
The need to deliver returns on students’ educational
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investment is at its apex in applied fields such as law. Legal education’s principal product, the degree of juris doctor, serves primarily as a career-building credential for students who buy it.
Law attracts students to the extent that it promises them a way to sustain themselves. To put the point sharply, law schools sell a product that students will buy only to the extent that they can make a decent living with it. The J.D. is a degree of practical wisdom, and legal education should evaluate itself according to the extent to which law schools prepare their students, financially and intellectually, for lifelong careers.

Dean and Professor of Law, University of Louisville. L. Joseph Tackett provided capable research assistance. Special thanks to Heather Elaine Worland
Chen.
1. Cf. 1 Timothy 6:10.
2. See Jim Chen, Truth and Beauty: A Legal Translation, 41 U. TOL. L. REV. 261,
262 (2010) (describing law as an applied discipline, in contrast with “pure” sciences such as mathematics and physics).

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Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1967266

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WILLIAM MITCHELL LAW REVIEW

[Vol. 38:3

Law schools must deliver quantifiable, material benefit to their students. At the very point of balance between intellectual rigor and practical wisdom lies the fulcrum of truth and beauty in legal
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education. Tuition paid by students hoping to become lawyers represents the primary source of funding for American legal
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Like most of our counterparts in the American education. academy, however, law school deans and professors ordinarily do not evaluate their collective enterprise in terms of value realized by
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their students. Even as the cost of attending law school has
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increased, law school graduates’ job prospects have not kept pace.
In recruiting new students, law schools rarely if ever address this
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Whether that failing arises from blissful economic reality. ignorance, complacency, or willful disregard is ultimately a matter of moral judgment. For its part, in its ongoing review of the
American Bar Association as the accrediting agency for law schools, the U.S. Department of Education has exposed the legal academy and the legal profession’s failure to address student indebtedness
3. See id. at 264–66.
4. A glance at the most richly endowed institutions of higher education offers a hint at the degree to which American law schools and their host universities depend on tuition.
Harvard College, perhaps the wealthiest undergraduate division in the United States, has historically drawn no more than half of its annual budget from distributions from the Harvard Corporation. See
John Lauerman, Harvard College’s Faculty to Cut Budget 19 Percent in 2 Years,
BLOOMBERG, Apr. 15, 2009, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid
=newsarchive&sid=atwyPj1i9.xE&refer=home.
5. See Cecilia Capuzzi Simon, R.O.I., N.Y. TIMES, July 24, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/education/edlife/edl-24roi t.html
?pagewanted=all.
6. See, e.g., Catherine Ho, ABA Faces Scrutiny as Job Prospects, Debt Levels for Law
School Grads Worsen, WASH. POST, July 24, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com…