Two recent articles... The Student Loan debt bubble and the obscene costs of Law School

Two recent articles highlight the problems of debt being loaded on to the youngest people in the USA, especially those from poor, working class, and middle class backgrounds. Two recent articles outline this problem in detail and are worth reading. The first is from Counterpunch (, the second from The New York Times. While officials are telling our children that they have to go to college, they are not telling them — or their families — that the deck is being stacked and the game rigged to put them into debt peonage, as it was called back in the days of Charles Dickens, for the better part of their lives. And all this so that expensive wars, massive privatization, and obscene profits can take front seat to human needs and the education of all those who want and deserve it.

The Curse of the First American Austerity Generation. The Student Loan Debt Bubble. By ALAN NASSER and KELLY NORMAN

It was announced last summer that total student loan debt, at $830 billion, now exceeds total US credit card debt, itself bloated to the bubble level of $827 billion. And student loan debt is growing at the rate of $90 billion a year.

There are far fewer students than there are credit card holders. Could there be a student debt bubble at a time when college graduates' jobs and earnings prospects are as gloomy as they have been at any time since the Great Depression?

The data indicate that today's students are saddled with a burden similar to the one currently borne by their parents. Most of these parents have experienced decades of stagnating wages, and have only one asset, home equity. The housing meltdown has caused that resource either to disappear or to turn into a punishing debt load. The younger generation too appears to have mortgaged its future earnings in the form of student loan debt.

The most recent complete statistics cover 2008, when debt was held by 62 percent of students from public universities, 72 percent from private nonprofit schools, and a whopping 96 percent from private for-profit ("proprietary") schools.

For-profit school enrollment is growing faster than enrollment at public schools, and a growing percentage of students attending for-profit schools represent holders of debt likely to default. In order to get a better handle on the dynamics of student debt growth, it is helpful to sketch the connection between the current crisis in public education and the recent rapid growth of the for-profits.

Crisis of Public Education Precipitates Private Growth

Since the most common advise to the unemployed is to "get a college education", and tuition at public institutions is at least half or less than private-school rates, public higher education institutions have been swamped with an influx of out of work adults. This has resulted in enrollment gluts at many state colleges. At the same time, tuition is increasing just when household income and hence the affordability of higher education are declining.

Here is how this scenario unfolds:

With few exceptions, state-funded colleges and universities set tuition rates based on policy and budget decisions made by state legislatures. High and increasing unemployment and declining wages have resulted in declining public revenues. This in turn leads to budget cut directives from legislative bodies to public higher education institutions, often accompanied by the authority to increase tuition.

For example, a 14 percent budget cut to an institution may be "offset" by giving the governing boards of the school the authority to raise tuition by a maximum of 7 percent. Often the imbalance created by a cut to the base budget and an increase in tuition is made worse by limits on enrollment. A state legislative body may cut an institution's budget, allow it to increase tuition, but not provide per-student funding increases to keep pace with the accelerating enrollment demand.

This affects tuition rates at for-profit institutions. More students who would otherwise attend a state institution or a private, non-profit school are finding themselves without a seat at over-enrolled campuses. More students are pushed into the online and for-profit sectors, and proprietary schools sieze the day by inflating their tuition costs.

Because online colleges lack the enrollment constraints of a physical campus, they are uniquely poised to capture huge proportions of the growing higher education market by starting classes in non-traditional intervals (the University of Phoenix, for example, begins its online classes on a 5-week rolling basis) and without regard to space, charging ever-increasing rates to students who have no other choice.

Instead of waiting for an admissions decision or a financial aid package from a traditional college, students can enroll immediately online. This ease of use and accessibility to any student has allowed the for-profit sector to capture a growing portion of the higher education market and a growing proportion of education-targeted public money. Enrollments at for-profit colleges have increased in the last ten years by 225 percent, far outpacing public institution increases.

Thus, the neoliberal assault on public education not only tends to push more students into private institutions, it also generates upward pressure on tuition costs. This results in growing pressure on enrollees at proprietary schools to take on student loan debt.

How Healthy Are Student Loans?

The extraordinary growth of student debt paralleled the bubble years, from the beginnings of the bubble in the mid-1990s to the bursting of the housing bubble. From 1994 to 2008, average debt levels for graduating seniors more than doubled to $23,200, according to The Student Loan Project, a nonprofit research and policy organization. More than 10 percent of those completing their bachelor's degree are now saddled with over $40,000 in debt.

Are student loans as financially problematic as the junk mortgage securities still held by the biggest banks? That depends on how those loans were rated and the ability of the borrower to repay.

In the build-up to the housing crisis, the major ratings agencies used by the biggest banks gave high ratings to mortgage-backed securities that were in fact toxic. A similar pattern is evident in student loans.

The health of student loans is officially assessed by the "cohort-default rate," a supposedly reliable predictor of the likelihood that borrowers will default. But the cohort-default rate only measures the rate of defaults during the first two years of repayment. Defaults that occur after two years are not tracked by the Department of Education for institutional financial aid eligibility. Nor do government loans require credit checks or other types of regard for whether a student will be able to repay the loans.

There is about $830 billion in total outstanding federal and private student-loan debt. Only 40 percent of that debt is actively being repaid. The rest is in default, or in deferment (when a student requests temporary postponement of payment because of economic hardship), which means payments and interest are halted, or in forbearance. Interest on government loans is suspended during deferment, but continues to accrue on private loans.

As tuitions increase, loan amounts increase; private loan interest rates have reached highs of 20 percent. Add that to a deeply troubled economy and dismal job market, and we have the full trappings of a major bubble. As it goes with contemporary bubbles, when the loans go into default, taxpayers will be forced to pick up the tab, since just about all loans made before July 2010 are backed by the federal government.

Of course the usual suspects are among the top private lenders: Citigroup, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan-Chase.

Financial Aid and Subprime Lending

A higher percentage of students enrolled at private, for-profit ("proprietary") schools hold education debt (96 percent) than students at public colleges and universities or students attending private non-profits.

Two out of every five students enrolled at proprietary schools are in default on their education loans 15 years after the loans were issued.

In spite of this high extended default rate, for-profit colleges are in no danger of losing their access to federal financial aid because, as we have seen, the Department of Education does not record defaults after the first two years of repayment.

Nor have the disturbing findings of recent Congressional hearings on the recruitment techniques of proprietary colleges jeopardized these schools' access to federal funds. The hearings displayed footage from an undercover investigation showing admissions staff at proprietary schools using recruitment techniques explicitly forbidden by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors. Admissions and enrollment employees are also shown misrepresenting the costs of an education, the graduation and employment rates of students, and the accreditation status of institutions.

These deceptions increase the likelihood that graduates of for-profits will have special difficulties repaying their loans, since the majority enrolled at these schools are low-income students. (Forbes magazine, Oct. 26, 2010, "When For-Profits Target Low-Income Students", Arnold L. Mitchem)

A credit score is not required for federal loan eligibility. Neither is information regarding income, assets, or employment. Borrowing is still encouraged in the face of strong evidence that the likelihood of default is high.

Loaning money to anyone without prime qualifications was "subprime lending" during the ballooning of the housing bubble, when banks were enticing otherwise ineligible candidates to buy houses they could not afford.

Shouldn't easy lending without adequate credit checks to college students with insecure credit also be considered "subprime lending"?

Government Bias Toward Private Education

In 2009 President Obama initially pledged $12 billion in stimulus funds to help community colleges through the economic crisis. Last March that sum was slashed to $2 billion. The umpteenth example of a broken Obama promise.

We see a drastic cut in federal stimulus funding even as state funding for higher education is expected to fall even further. At a time when community colleges across the country are overflowing with returning students seeking new skills and high school graduates who can't afford ever-rising tuition rates at many four-year schools, the majority of education-bound stimulus funds are going to for-profit institutions, not community colleges. (Our home state of Washington illustrates the general direction of the administration's "reform" of higher education: for the first time in the state's history, public funds no longer pay the majority of higher education costs.)

Apart from stimulus funding, overall government student aid is disproportionately aimed at those attending proprietary schools. Nearly 25 percent of federal financial aid is spent on students attending for-profit colleges, even though these colleges enroll less than 10 percent of the nation's college students.

Proprietary schools now rely on federal financial aid – PELL Grants and federal loans – as their primary source of revenue.

Even the most profitable proprietary schools receive the majority of their funding from federal financial aid programs. According to a U.S.-Senate-sponsored study, The University of Phoenix, the largest private university in North America, receives 90 percent of its funding from the federal government. Not-so-incidentally, proprietary schools are among the largest donors to Education Committee members.

Proponents of the system defend it by pointing out that public colleges also rely on taxpayer subsidies for the majority of their revenue. But this overlooks a decisive difference: what proprietary schools don't have that public schools do, is an obligation as a state agency to deliver a high quality education to its students. Instead, proprietary schools have a legal fiduciary duty to their stockholders, like any other for-profit enterprise. As a result, according to a PBS Frontline investigation, the sector spends 20 to 25 percent of its budget on marketing and only 10 to 20 percent on faculty.

The Track Record of For-Profit Colleges

The track record of for-profit colleges does not justify their disproportionate share of government largesse.

Drop out rates are higher than they are at public and non-proprietary private schools, often as high as 50 percent. Irrespective of whether a student drops out, the for-profit college has already pocketed tuition and fees. The student is left still burdened with a substantial loan obligation.

As for graduation rates, a 2008 report by the National Center for Education Statistics puts the graduation rate for students at for-profits beginning their studies in 2002 at 22 percent, an 11 percent drop from students enrolling in 2000. The same cohort attending public and private non-profits graduated at rates of roughly 54 percent and 64 percent, respectively. Graduate or not, the debt burden remains.

Suppose the student either seeks to transfer to a public or another non-profit, or completes her studies and enters the job market with a proprietary degree? Many students assume that credits are transferable to a public or nonprofit, but they aren't, so they pay twice to attain their degree. The school holds out the lure of high-paying jobs upon graduation, but either no such jobs exist or they require education or experience beyond what the school provided. Congressional studies have shown that the earnings of proprietary graduates are the lowest of all graduates. According to a 2009 Bloomberg report on salary comparisons between traditional and online degree-holders, graduates with bachelor's degrees from traditional colleges earn a median salary of $55,200, while those with degrees from the University of Phoenix earn only $50,500, and $43,100 from for-profit American Intercontinental.

On top of these earnings and job-prospect disadvantages, proprietary graduates bear the heaviest academic debt burden. The Education Department reports that 43 percent of those who default on student loans attended for-profit schools, even though only 26 percent of borrowers attended such schools. Many of those who attended for-profits don't earn enough to repay their loans. It's not uncommon for a student who either paid out of pocket or took out a loan for a $30,000 degree to find herself stuck in a $22,000 a year job. This only adds insult to injury: a Government Accounting Office study reports that "A student interested in a massage therapy certificate costing $14,000 at a for-profit college was told that the program was a good value. However, the same certificate from a local community college cost $520.00." (GAO, "For-Profit Colleges: Undercover Testing Finds Colleges Encouraged Fraud and Engaged in Deceptive and Questionable Marketing Practices",

Nov. 30, 2010)

Paying back student loans out of low income and over a long period of time can rule out the possibility of making other financial investments required for the vanishing American Dream, such as buying a house, or saving for retirement or for one's children's education.

All in all, the for-profits' track record is more than dismaying. In too many cases, students leave proprietary schools in worse financial shape than they were in before they enrolled. The problem is not limited to proprietary graduates: this generation of college grads now possesses more debt than opportunity.

You might think that the unflattering record of for-profit schools would restrain government gift-giving. After all, the Obama administration's current education policy would punish "underperforming" public schools and teachers. But these policies target the public sector exclusively: the aim is to undermine teachers' unions and encourage privatization by boosting charter schools. It is entirely consistent with Washington's agenda that the dismal performance of proprietary schools does not jeopardize their future access to public financial aid funds - as long as the student does not default on their loan within two years of dropping out.

The Career College Association, the lobbying arm of publicly traded colleges, finds all this irrelevant. It relies on a different type of indicator from the rest of the higher education sector to measure the success of its for-profit colleges: stock prices. Remarkable. We see the disproportionate flourishing of "schools" whose primary concern has nothing to do with education.

The Private Lenders: Securitization As Usual

The two largest holders of student loans are SLM Corp (SLM) and Student Loan Corp (STU), a subsidiary of Citigroup. SLM -Sallie Mae- was originated as a Government Sponsored Enterprise (GSE) in 1972. The idea was to prime it for eventual privatization. In 2002 Sallie Mae shed the its GSE status and became a subsidiary of the Delaware-chartered publicly traded holding company SLM Holding Corporation. Finally, in 2004 the company officially terminated its ties to the federal government.

As the nation's largest single private provider of student loan funding, SLM has to date lent to more than 31 million students. In 2009 it lent approximately $6.3 billion in private loans and between $5.5 billion and $6 billion in 2010.

In the 1990s, well before its full privatization, Sallie's operations were increasingly swept into the financialization of the economy. It jumped whole hog onto the securitization bandwagon, lumping together and repackaging a large portion of its loans and selling them as bonds to investors. SLM created and marketed its own species of asset-backed securitized student loans, Student Loan Asset Backed Securities (SLABS). When derivatives trading went through the roof following the 1998 repeal of Glass-Steagal, increasingly diverse tranches of Sallie-Mae-backed SLABS entered the market. The company is now also buying and selling the obligations of state and nonprofit educational-loan agencies.

Student loans were included in the same securities that are blamed for the triggering of the financial crisis, and financial products containing these same student loans continue to be traded to this day. The health of these tranches and securities is, as we have seen, highly suspect.

SLM's risk was minimized as long as the feds guaranteed its loans. But as part of last March's health care legislation, starting in July 2010 federally subsidized education loans were no longer available to private lenders. What do education loans have to do with health care? Since the government took federal loan originations in-house, making them available only through the Department of Education, it no longer has to pay hefty fees (acting as the guarantee) to private banks. The Obama administration expects to save $68 billion between now and 2020. $19 billion of this will be used to pay for the $940 billion health care bill.

While there is scant relief for student borrowers, private banks manage to survive apparent setbacks just fine. SLM will do quite well despite the withdrawal of government backing. The company anticipated the change in government lending policy by executing an ingenious trick as a borrower. Early last year it made its insurance subsidiary a member of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, which agreed to lend to big-borrower SLM at the extraordinary rate of .23 percent. And anyhow, subsidized loans are almost always insufficient to cover the entire cost of a college degree. For a while the student gets to enjoy the benefits of a government loan. Interest rates are lower and during deferment interest does not accrue. But eventually many students must also take out a private loan, usually in larger amounts and with higher interest rates which continue to mount during deferment.

The Worst-Case Scenario: Going Bankrupt

Credit card and even gambling debts can be discharged in bankruptcy. But ditching a student loan is virtually impossible, especially once a collection agency gets involved. Although lenders may trim payments, getting fees or principals waived seldom happens.

The Wall Street Journal ran a revealing report on the kinds of situation that can lead to financial catastrophe for a student borrower. ("The $550,000 Student Loan Burden: As Default Rates on Borrowing for Higher Education Rise, Some Borrowers See No Way Out", Feb. 13, 2010) Here is an excerpt illustrating the toll that forced indebtedness can take on the student borrower:

"When Michelle Bisutti, a 41-year-old family practitioner in Columbus, Ohio, finished medical school in 2003, her student-loan debt amounted to roughly $250,000. Since then, it has ballooned to $555,000.

It is the result of her deferring loan payments while she completed her residency, default charges and relentlessly compounding interest rates. Among the charges: a single $53,870 fee for when her loan was turned over to a collection agency.

Although Bisutti's debt load is unusual, her experience having problems repaying isn't. Emmanuel Tellez's mother is a laid-off factory worker, and $120 from her $300 unemployment checks is garnished to pay the federal student loan she took out for her son.

By the time Tellez graduated in 2008, he had $50,000 of his own debt in loans issued by SLM... In December, he was laid off from his $29,000-a-year job in Boston and defaulted.

Heather Ehmke of Oakland, Calif., renegotiated the terms of her subprime mortgage after her home was foreclosed. But even after filing for bankruptcy, she says she couldn't get Sallie Mae, one of her lenders, to adjust the terms on her student loan. After 14 years with patches of deferment and forbearance, the loan has increased from $28,000 to more than $90,000. Her monthly payments jumped from $230 to $816. Last month, her petition for undue hardship on the loans was dismissed."

The First Austerity Generation's Job Prospects

Most of those affected by the meltdown of 2008 had completed their education and were either employed or retired. The student loan debt bubble signals a generation that enters the work of paid work cursed with what is more likely than not to be a life of permanent indebtedness and low wages.

The current cohort of indebted students will face earnings prospects far poorer than what job seekers could expect during the period of the longest wave of sustained economic growth and the highest wages in US history, 1949-1973. The present generation will experience the indefinite extension of Reagan-to-Obama low wage neoliberalism.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers more than 50 percent of all 2007 college graduates who had applied for a job had received an offer by graduation day. In 2008, that percentage tumbled to 26 percent, and to less than 20 percent in 2009. And a college education has been producing diminishing returns. For while a college degree does tend to correlate with a relatively high income, during the last eight to ten years the median income of highly educated Americans has been declining.

Every two years the Bureau of Labor Statistics issues projections of how many jobs will be added in the key occupational categories over the next ten years. The projected future jobs picture indicates that the grim employment situation is not merely a temporary reflection of the current unusually severe downturn. But you miss this if you get your news only from mainstream sources. The New York Times's report on the most recent BLS projections, released in December 2009, paints an unduly optimistic picture of future employment opportunities. (Catherine Rampell, "Where the Jobs Will Be", Dec. 15, 2009) Here is how a misleading report can be produced without falsifying the facts:

BLS releases two job projections, on the Fastest Growing Occupations and on Occupations With the Largest Job Growth. The Times focuses on the former, where the two fastest growing occupations, biomedical engineers and network systems and data communications analysts, require a college degree. The Times echoes BLS's comment that occupations requiring postsecondary (a bachelor's degree or higher) credentials will grow fastest. This is redolent of the ideology of the "New Economy" : the US is turning into a society of professionals and knowledge workers, and the key to success in this upgraded economy is a college education.

But we need more information, about the degree requirements of the total number of job categories listed in both projections, and about the number of new jobs expected to materialize in each projection.

Of the total jobs listed, only one of five require a postsecondary degree. By far the fastest growing category is biomedical engineers, projected to grow 72.02 percent, from 16,000 in 2008 to 27, 600 in 2018. That's 11,600 new jobs. Is that a lot? Well, compared to what? The percentage figure, 72.02, is high, but what about the number of new jobs? Let's compare that Fastest Growing occupation with retail salespersons, the occupation fifth down on the Largest Growth list. Retail sales workers will grow by a mere 8.35 percent. But that amounts to almost 375,000 new jobs, an increase from 4,489,000 jobs in 2008 to 4,863,000 jobs in 2018. Compare that to the 11,600 new jobs at the top of the Fastest Growing list. Just do the simple math on all the categories on both lists: the great majority of new jobs will be low-paying.

This is a nation of knowledge workers? Most new jobs will offer the kind of wage we would expect from an economy in which, according to one of Obama's most repeated mantras, "we" will "consume less and export more". BLS avers as much when it projects that fewer than 12 million of the 51 million "job openings due to growth and replacement needs" will require a bachelor's degree.

Our first austerity generation will be in debt to its teeth and stuck with low-wage work. The relative penury will require more debt still. Michael Hudson calls this debt peonage. Not to sound like a broken record, but we need to get off our asses and begin taking seriously political organization that goes beyond the ballot box. Not that voting is entirely irrelevant. We can imitate those activists -bankers, hedge fund managers, and corporate CEOs- who stoutly refuse to support, financially or at the ballot box, candidates who will not give them what they want. These days, those folks always get what they want. Liberals and too many Leftists have not learned that elementary political lesson.

Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He can be reached at


The following article appeared on line at The New York Times on January 8, 2011 and on Page One of the Times Business Section on Sunday, January 9, 2011.

Is Law School a Losing Game? By DAVID SEGAL, Published: January 8, 2011

IF there is ever a class in how to remain calm while trapped beneath $250,000 in loans, Michael Wallerstein ought to teach it.

Michael Wallerstein, who has a law degree, has $250,000 in loans and only the occasional job as a legal temp.

Here he is, sitting one afternoon at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a tall, sandy-haired, 27-year-old radiating a kind of surfer-dude serenity. His secret, if that’s the right word, is to pretty much ignore all the calls and letters that he receives every day from the dozen or so creditors now hounding him for cash.

“And I don’t open the e-mail alerts with my credit score,” he adds. “I can’t look at my credit score any more.”

Mr. Wallerstein, who can’t afford to pay down interest and thus watches the outstanding loan balance grow, is in roughly the same financial hell as people who bought more home than they could afford during the real estate boom. But creditors can’t foreclose on him because he didn’t spend the money on a house.

He spent it on a law degree. And from every angle, this now looks like a catastrophic investment.

Well, every angle except one: the view from law schools. To judge from data that law schools collect, and which is published in the closely parsed U.S. News and World Report annual rankings, the prospects of young doctors of jurisprudence are downright rosy.

In reality, and based on every other source of information, Mr. Wallerstein and a generation of J.D.’s face the grimmest job market in decades. Since 2008, some 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished, according to a Northwestern Law study. Associates have been laid off, partners nudged out the door and recruitment programs have been scaled back or eliminated.

And with corporations scrutinizing their legal expenses as never before, more entry-level legal work is now outsourced to contract temporary employees, both in the United States and in countries like India. It’s common to hear lawyers fret about the sort of tectonic shift that crushed the domestic steel industry decades ago.

But improbably enough, law schools have concluded that life for newly minted grads is getting sweeter, at least by one crucial measure. In 1997, when U.S. News first published a statistic called “graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation,” law schools reported an average employment rate of 84 percent. In the most recent U.S. News rankings, 93 percent of grads were working — nearly a 10-point jump.

In the Wonderland of these statistics, a remarkable number of law school grads are not just busy — they are raking it in. Many schools, even those that have failed to break into the U.S. News top 40, state that the median starting salary of graduates in the private sector is $160,000. That seems highly unlikely, given that Harvard and Yale, at the top of the pile, list the exact same figure.

How do law schools depict a feast amid so much famine?

“Enron-type accounting standards have become the norm,” says William Henderson of Indiana University, one of many exasperated law professors who are asking the American Bar Association to overhaul the way law schools assess themselves. “Every time I look at this data, I feel dirty.”

IT is an open secret, Professor Henderson and others say, that schools finesse survey information in dozens of ways. And the survey’s guidelines, which are established not by U.S. News but by the American Bar Association, in conjunction with an organization called the National Association for Law Placement, all but invite trimming.

A law grad, for instance, counts as “employed after nine months” even if he or she has a job that doesn’t require a law degree. Waiting tables at Applebee’s? You’re employed. Stocking aisles at Home Depot? You’re working, too.

Number-fudging games are endemic, professors and deans say, because the fortunes of law schools rise and fall on rankings, with reputations and huge sums of money hanging in the balance. You may think of law schools as training grounds for new lawyers, but that is just part of it.

They are also cash cows.

Tuition at even mediocre law schools can cost up to $43,000 a year. Those huge lecture-hall classes — remember “The Paper Chase”? — keep teaching costs down. There are no labs or expensive equipment to maintain. So much money flows into law schools that law professors are among the highest paid in academia, and law schools that are part of universities often subsidize the money-losing fields of higher education.

“If you’re a law school and you add 25 kids to your class, that’s a million dollars, and you don’t even have to hire another teacher,” says Allen Tanenbaum, a lawyer in Atlanta who led the American Bar Association’s commission on the impact of the economic crisis on the profession and legal needs. “That additional income goes straight to the bottom line.”

There were fewer complaints about fudging and subsidizing when legal jobs were plentiful. But student loans have always been the financial equivalent of chronic illnesses because there is no legal way to shake them. So the glut of diplomas, the dearth of jobs and those candy-coated employment statistics have now yielded a crop of furious young lawyers who say they mortgaged their future under false pretenses. You can sample their rage, and their admonitions, on what are known as law school scam blogs, with names like Shilling Me Softly, Subprime JD and Rose Colored Glasses.

“Avoid this overpriced sewer pit as if your life depended on it,” writes the anonymous author of the blog Third Tier Reality — a reference to the second-to-bottom tier of the U.S. News rankings — in a typically scatological review. “Unless, of course, you think that you will be better off with $110k-$190k in NON-DISCHARGEABLE debt for a degree that qualifies you to wait tables at the Battery Park Bar and Lounge.”

But so far, the warnings have been unheeded. Job openings for lawyers have plunged, but law schools are not dialing back enrollment. About 43,000 J.D.’s were handed out in 2009, 11 percent more than a decade earlier, and the number of law schools keeps rising — nine new ones in the last 10 years, and five more seeking approval to open in the future.

Apparently, there is no shortage of 22-year-olds who think that law school is the perfect place to wait out a lousy economy and the gasoline that fuels this system — federally backed student loans — is still widely available. But the legal market has always been obsessed with academic credentials, and today, few students except those with strong grade-point averages at top national and regional schools can expect a come-hither from a deep-pocketed firm. Nearly everyone else is in for a struggle. Which is why many law school professors privately are appalled by what they describe as a huge and continuing transfer of wealth, from students short on cash to richly salaried academics. Or perhaps this is more like a game of three-card monte, with law schools flipping the aces and a long line of eager players, most wagering borrowed cash, in a contest that few of them can win.

And all those losers can remain cash-poor for a long time. “I think the student loans that kids leave law school with are more scandalous than payday loans,” says Andrew Morriss, a law professor at the University of Alabama. “And because it’s so easy to get a student loan, law school tuition has grossly outpaced the rate of inflation for the last 20 years. It’s now astonishingly high.”

Like everything else about the law, however, the full picture here is complicated. Independent surveys find that most law students would enroll even if they knew that only a tiny number of them would wind up with six-figure salaries. Nearly all of them, it seems, are convinced that they’re going to win the ring toss at this carnival and bring home the stuffed bear.

And many students enroll for reasons other than immediate financial returns. Mr. Wallerstein, for instance, was drawn by the prestige of the degree. He has no regrets, at least for now, even though he seems doomed to a type of indentured servitude at least through his 30s.

“Law school might not be worth it for another 10 or 15 years,” he says, “but the riskier approach always has the bigger payoff.”

True, say Professor Henderson and his allies. But he contends that law schools — which, let’s not forget, require students to take courses on disclosure and ethics — have a special moral obligation to tell the truth about themselves. It’s an obligation that persists, he says, even if students would sign on the dotted line no matter what.

“You’re beginning your legal education at an institution that is engaging in the kind of disreputable practices that we would be incredibly disappointed to discover our graduates engaging in,” he says. “What we have here is powder keg, and if law schools don’t solve this problem, there will be a day when the Federal Trade Commission, or some plaintiff’s lawyer, shows up and says ‘This looks like illegal deception.’”

WHEN he started in 2006, Michael Wallerstein knew little about the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, other than that it was in San Diego, which seemed like a fine place to spend three years.

“I looked at schools in Pennsylvania and Long Island,” he says, “but I thought, why not go somewhere I’ll enjoy?”

Mr. Wallerstein is chatting over lunch one recent afternoon with his fiancée, Karin Michonski. She, too, seems unperturbed by his dizzying collection of i.o.u.’s. Despite those debts, she hopes that he does not wind up in one of those time-gobbling corporate law jobs.

“We like hanging out together,” she says with a laugh.

If love paid the bills, these two would be debt-free tomorrow. But it doesn’t, and Mr. Wallerstein has no money in the bank, no assets and — aside from the occasional job as a legal temp — no wages to garnish. He and Ms. Michonski live rent-free in a nearby brownstone, in return for keeping an eye on the elderly man who owns the place.

“Sometimes the banks will threaten to sue,” he says, “but one of the first things you learn in law school, in civil procedure class, is that it doesn’t make sense to sue someone who doesn’t have anything.”

He remembers little about the promotional materials the Thomas Jefferson school sent when he applied in 2006, other than a pamphlet with lots of promising numbers. That was before the economy crumbled, but the school’s postgraduate data still looks fabulous, particularly given its spot in the fourth and bottom tier of U.S. News’s rankings. The most recent survey says 92 percent of Thomas Jefferson grads were employed nine months after they earned their degrees.

Beth Kransberger, associate dean of student affairs at Thomas Jefferson, stands by that figure, noting that it includes 25 percent of those graduates who could not be located, as well as anyone who went on to other graduate studies — all perfectly kosher under the guidelines.

Like lots of administrators, she defends the figures she gathers and laments that so many other schools are manipulating results.

“You need to take the high road,” she said. “Schools that are behaving the most ethically want students who come to law school with their eyes open.”

Even students with open eyes, though, will have a hard time sleuthing through the U.S. News rankings. They are based entirely on unaudited surveys conducted by each law school, using questions devised by the American Bar Association and the National Association for Law Placement. Given the stakes and given that the figures are not double-checked by an impartial body, each school faces exactly the sort of potential conflict of interest lawyers are trained to howl about.

The surveys themselves have a built-in bias. As many deans acknowledge, the results are skewed because graduates with high-paying jobs are more likely to respond than people earning $9 an hour at Radio Shack. (Those who don’t respond are basically invisible, aside from reducing the overall response rate of the survey.)

Certain definitions in the surveys seem open to abuse. A person is employed after nine months, for instance, if he or she is working on Feb. 15. This is the most competitive category — it counts for about one-seventh of the U.S. News ranking — and in the upper echelons, it’s not unusual to see claims of 99 percent and, in a handful of cases, 100 percent employment rates at nine months.

A number of law schools hire their own graduates, some in hourly temp jobs that, as it turns out, coincide with the magical date. Last year, for instance, Georgetown Law sent an e-mail to alums who were “still seeking employment.” It announced three newly created jobs in admissions, paying $20 an hour. The jobs just happened to start on Feb. 1 and lasted six weeks.

A spokeswoman for the school said that none of these grads were counted as “employed” as a result of these hourly jobs. In a lengthy exchange of e-mails and calls, several different explanations were offered, the oddest of which came from Gihan Fernando, the assistant dean of career services. He said in an interview that Georgetown Law had “lost track” of two of the three alums, even though they were working at the very institution that was looking for them.

As absurd as the rankings might sound, deans ignore them at their peril, and those who guide their schools higher up the U.S. News chart are rewarded with greater alumni donations, better students and jobs at higher-profile schools.

“When I was a candidate for this job,” said Phillip J. Closius, the dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, “I said ‘I can talk for 10 minutes about the fallacies of the U.S. News rankings,’ but nobody wants to hear about fallacies. There are millions of dollars riding on students’ decisions about where to go to law school, and that creates real institutional pressures.”

Mr. Closius came from the University of Toledo College of Law, where he lifted the school to No. 83 from No. 140, he said. Among his strategies: shifting about 40 students with lower LSAT scores into the part-time program. Because part-time students didn’t then count in the U.S. News survey — the rules have since been changed — Toledo’s bar passage rate rose, which helped its ranking.

“You can call it massaging the data if you want, but I never saw it that way,” he says. Weaker students wound up with lighter course loads, which meant that fewer of them flunked out. In his estimation, a dean who pays attention to the U.S. News rankings isn’t gaming the system; he’s making the school better.

Unfortunately, he says, not all schools play fair.

Of course, fair play is hardly encouraged. Any institution with the guts to report, say, a 4 percent drop in postgraduate employment would plunge in the rankings, leaving the dean to explain a lot of convoluted math, and the case for unvarnished truth, to a bunch of angry students and alums.

Critics of the rankings often cast the issue in moral terms, but the problem, as many professors have noted, is structural. A school that does not aggressively manage its ranking will founder, and because there are no cops on this beat, there is no downside to creative accounting. In such circumstances, the numbers are bound to look cheerier, even as the legal market flat-lines.

“We ought to be doing a better job for our students and spend less time worrying about whether another school is five spots ahead,” says David N. Yellen, dean of the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. “But in the real world you can’t escape from the pressures. We’re all sort of trapped. I don’t know if anyone is out-and-out lying, but I do know that a lot of schools are hyping a lot of misleading statistics.”

WHEN Mr. Wallerstein started at Thomas Jefferson, he was in no mood for austerity. He borrowed so much that before the start of his first semester he nearly put a down payment on a $350,000 two-bedroom, two-bath condo, figuring that the investment would earn a profit by the time he graduated. He was ready to ink the deal until a rep at the mortgage giant Countrywide asked if his employer at the time — a trade magazine publisher in New Jersey — would write a letter falsely stating that he was moving to San Diego for work.

“We were on a three-way call with my real estate agent and I said I didn’t feel comfortable with that,” he says. “The Countrywide guy chuckled and said, ‘Everyone lies on their mortgage application.’ ”

Instead, Mr. Wallerstein rented a spacious apartment. He also spent a month studying in the South of France and a month in Prague — all on borrowed money. There were cost-of-living loans, and tuition of about $33,000 a year. Later came a $15,000 loan to cover months of studying for the bar.

Today, his best guess is that he should be sending $2,000 to $3,000 a month in total, to lenders that include Wells Fargo, Citibank and Sallie Mae.

“There are a bunch of others,” he says. “I’m not really good at keeping records.”

Mr. Wallerstein didn’t know it at the time, but Thomas Jefferson leads the nation’s law schools in at least one category: 95 percent of students graduate with debt, the highest rate in the U.S. News rankings.

The reason, Ms. Kransberger says, is that many Thomas Jefferson students are either immigrants or, like Mr. Wallerstein, the first person in their family to get a law degree; statistically those are both groups with generally little or modest means. When Ms. Kransberger meets applicants engaged in what she calls “magical thinking” about their finances, she advises them to defer for a year or two until they are on stronger footing.

“But I don’t think you can act as a moral educator,” she says. “Should we really be saying to students who don’t have family help, ‘No, you shouldn’t have access to law school’? That’s a tough argument to make.”

It’s an argument complicated by the reality that a small fraction of graduates are still winning the Big Law sweepstakes. Yes, they tend to hail from the finest law schools, and have the highest G.P.A.’s. But still.

“Who’s to say to any particular student, ‘You won’t be the one to get the $160,000-a-year job,’ ” says Steven Greenberger, a dean at the DePaul College of Law. “I think they should have all the info, and the info should be accurate, but saying once they know that they shouldn’t be allowed to come, that’s predicated on the idea that students are really ignorant and don’t know what is best for them.”

Based on the seething and regret you hear from some law school grads, more than a few wish that someone had been patronizing enough to say, “Oh no you don’t.” But it’s often hard to convince students about the potential downside of law school, says Kimber A. Russell, a 37-year-old graduate of DePaul, who writes the Shilling Me Softly blog.

“This idea of exceptionalism — I don’t know if it’s a thing with millennials, or what,” she says, referring to the generation now in its 20s. “Even if you tell them the bottom has fallen out of the legal market, they’re all convinced that none of the bad stuff will happen to them. It’s a serious, life-altering decision, going to law school, and you’re dealing with a lot of naïve students who have never had jobs, never paid real bills.”

Graduates who have been far more vigilant about their finances than Mr. Wallerstein are in trouble. Today, countless J.D.’s are paying their bills with jobs that have nothing do with the law, and they are losing ground on their debt every day. Stories are legion of young lawyers enlisting in the Army or folding pants at Lululemon. Or baby-sitting, like Carly Rosenberg, of the Brooklyn Law School class of 2009.

“I guess I kind of assumed that someone would hook me up with something,” she says. She has sent out 15 to 20 résumés a week since March, when she passed the bar. So far, nothing.

Jason Bohn, who received his J.D. from the University of Florida, is earning $33 an hour as a legal temp while strapped to more than $200,000 in loans, nearly all of which he accumulated as an undergraduate and while working on a master's degree at Columbia University.

“I grew up a ward of the state of New York, so I don’t have any parents to call for help,” Mr. Bohn says. “For my sanity, I have to think there is an end in sight.”

AS a student, Mr. Wallerstein assumed that the very scale of law school — all the paperwork, all the professors, all the tests — implied that pots of gold awaited anyone with smarts, charm and a willingness to work hard. He began to doubt that assumption when the firm where he had interned told him that it hadn’t been profitable for two years and could not offer him a full-time job.

Mr. Wallerstein and his fiancée moved back East after graduation, and he landed a job at a small firm in Queens. He says he was paid $10 an hour and worked for a manager who seemed to have walked straight out of a Dickens novel. Over a firm-wide lunch, as Labor Day approached, she asked employees to thank her, one at a time, for giving them the holiday off.

“When it was my turn, I said, ‘Labor Day is about celebrating the 40-hour workweek, weekends, that sort of thing,’ ” Mr. Wallerstein recalls. “She said, ‘Well, workers have that now so you don’t need a day off to celebrate it.’ ”

He lasted less than a month.

Since then, he has found jobs at temporary projects reviewing documents.The latest of these gigs is in office space rented on the 11th floor of the Viacom building in Times Square. He sits in a small, windowless room with five other lawyers, all clicking through page after page of documents on computers under fluorescent lights. The walls are bare except for the name of each lawyer, tacked overhead.

“Welcome to the veal pen,” said one during a tour two weeks ago.

The job is set up through a company called Peak Discovery, which put an ad on Craigslist, seeking 100 lawyers. “We got about 300 responses overnight,” said John Thacher, who is managing the project.

Mr. Thacher has managed about 2,500 people in his six years in the temporary legal business, and maybe five of them have gone on to associate jobs in law firms, the kind of work that nearly everyone aspires to when entering law school.

“Most of us either went to the wrong law school, which is the bottom two-thirds, or we were too old when we graduated,” he said. “I was 32 when I graduated, and at 32 you’re washed up in this field, in terms of a shot at the real deal. They perceived me as somebody they can’t indoctrinate into slave labor and work to death for seven years and then release if they don’t like you.”

This gets to what might be the ultimate ugly truth about law school: plenty of those who borrow, study and glad-hand their way into the gated community of Big Law are miserable soon after they move in. The billable-hour business model pins them to their desks and devours their free time.

Hence the cliché: law school is a pie-eating contest where the first prize is more pie.

Law school defenders note that huge swaths of the country lack adequate and affordable access to lawyers, which suggests that the issue here isn’t oversupply so much as maldistribution. But when the numbers are crunched, studies find that most law students need to earn around $65,000 a year to get the upper hand on their debt.

That kind of money is hard to earn hanging a shingle in rural Ohio or in public defenders’ offices, the budgets of which are often being cut. As elusive, and inhospitable, as jobs in Big Law may be, they are one of the few ways for new grads to keep out of delinquency.

The mismatch of student expectations and likely postgraduate outcomes is starting to yield some embarrassing headlines. In October, a student at Boston College Law School made news by posting online an open letter to the dean, offering to leave the school if he could get his tuition money back.

“With fatherhood impending,” wrote the student, whose name was redacted, “I go to bed every night terrified of the thought of trying to provide for my child AND paying off my J.D., and resentful at the thought that I was convinced to go to law school by empty promises of a fulfilling and remunerative career.”

After a few years of warnings by concerned professors, the American Bar Association is now studying whether it should refine the questions in its surveys in order to get more realistic and useful statistics for the U.S. News rankings. In mid-December, the organization held a two-day hearing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., about the collection of job placement data.

“There is a legitimate question about whether we’re asking for detailed-enough info and displaying that info for those who use it,” says Bucky Askew of the bar association. “I think it’s fair to say we’re aware of the criticism and have a committee working to getting to the bottom of this.”

And what about U.S. News? The editors could, but won’t unilaterally demand better data from law schools. “Do we have the power to do that? Yes, I think we do,” said Robert Morse, who oversees the law school rankings. “But we’d have to create a whole new definition of ‘employed,’ and it would be awkward if U.S. News imposed that definition by itself. It would be preferable if the A.B.A. took a leadership role in this.”

Instead of overhauling the rankings, some professors say, the solution may be to get law schools and the bar association out of the stat-collection business. Steven Greenberger of DePaul recommends a mandatory warning — a bit like the labels on cigarette packs — that every student taking the LSAT, the prelaw standardized test, must read.

“Something like ‘Law school tuition is expensive and here is what the actual cost will be, the job market is uncertain and you should carefully consider whether you want to pursue this degree,’ ” he says. “And it should be made absolutely clear to students, that if they sign up for X amount of debt, their monthly nut will be X in three years.”

Another approach would be to limit class sizes or the number of new law schools. But the bar association, which is granted accrediting authority by the Department of Education, says that it would run afoul of antitrust law if it imposed such limits.

Today, American law schools are like factories that no force has the power to slow down — not even the timeless dictates of supply and demand.

Solving the J.D. overabundance problem, according to Professor Henderson, will have to involve one very drastic measure: a bunch of lower-tier law schools will need to close. But nobody inside of the legal establishment, he predicts, has the stomach for that. “Ultimately,” he says, “some public authority will have to step in because law schools and lawyers are incapable of policing themselves.”

MR. WALLERSTEIN, for his part, is not complaining. Once you throw in the intangibles of having a J.D., he says, he is one of law schools’ satisfied customers.

“It’s a prestige thing,” he says. “I’m an attorney. All of my friends see me as a person they look up to. They understand I’m in a lot of debt, but I’ve done something they feel they could never do and the respect and admiration is important.”

Compared with the life he left four years ago, he has lost ground. That research position in Newark, he figures, would pay him $60,000 a year now, with benefits. Instead, he’s vying with a crowd for jobs that pay at rates just a little higher, but that last only a few weeks at a time, with no benefits. And he’s a quarter-million dollars in the hole.

Unless, somehow, the debt just goes away. Another of Mr. Wallerstein’s techniques for remaining cool in a serious financial pickle: believe that the pickle might somehow disappear.

“Bank bailouts, company bailouts — I don’t know, we’re the generation of bailouts,” he says in a hallway during a break from his Peak Discovery job. “And like, this debt of mine is just sort of, it’s a little illusory. I feel like at some point, I’ll negotiate it away, or they won’t collect it.”

He gives a slight shrug and a smile as he heads back to work. “It could be worse,” he says. “It’s not like they can put me jail.”

TIMES NOTE: This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: January 11, 2011. An earlier version of this article misstated the educational history of Jason Bohn, a recent law school graduate. While Mr. Bohn took classes at Columbia Law School, his law degree is from the University of Florida. And while nearly all of his student loan debt was accumulated at Columbia University, it was incurred while he was an undergraduate and while working on a master’s degree, and not at Columbia Law.

A version of this article appeared in print on January 9, 2011, on page BU1 of the New York edition.


January 12, 2011 at 6:58 AM

By: Albert Korach

Education Costs

Neil, I read your article and finally found something we could agree upon. It was well thought out and hits the nail on the head. For a working class family it could have been titled, PUT YOUR KIDS THROUGH SCHOOL AND GO BROKE. Many times while eating out I noticed the large numbers of very young servers. Manmy are college graduates that could not find a job in their schoolastic field or are trying to payoff a back breaking college loan. It's terrible to spend 4 or more years plus costs in school and end up waiting tables to pay off your loan.If you do not pay the government will come after you as well as those that co-signed for the loan. This system is having disastrous effects on many families as well as our economy. Great article Neil.

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