Can’t you NOT meet a nice young lawyer…

Among the tensions in higher education are expensive professional schools supplying graduates with higher debt loads than their industries can bear. Recent revelations include legal graduates describing their law schools as ponzi schemes and paper mills, as detailed in this piece. Some background:

Law school, always the safe choice, became a more popular choice. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of LSAT takers climbed 20.5 percent. Law school applications increased in turn.

But now a number of recent or current law students are saying—or screaming—that they made a mistake. They went to law school, they say, and now they’re underemployed or jobless, in debt, and three years older. And statistics show that the evidence is more than anecdotal.

One Boston College Law School third-year—miraculously, still anonymous—begged for his tuition back in exchange for a promise to drop out without a degree, in anopen letter to his dean published earlier this month. “This will benefit both of us,” he argues. “On the one hand, I will be free to return to the teaching career I left to come here. I’ll be able to provide for my family without the crushing weight of my law school loans. On the other hand, this will help BC Law go up in the rankings, since you will not have to report my unemployment at graduation to US News. This will present no loss to me, only gain: in today’s job market, a J.D. seems to be more of a liability than an asset.”

Law students suffer given the burden of the loans incurred at law school (one student even included his law school in a bankruptcy filing, asking that they “admit that your business knew or should have known that Plaintiff would be in no position to repay those loans”). But they are not alone. Education has a similar problem.

While there is still plenty of demand for teachers, the disparity in the cost of some teaching credential programs compared to the salaries available to teachers can be enormous. While most public universities offer the ability for aspiring teachers to become credentialed, many private schools have excessive costs for people who aspire to a teaching career. A few years ago I asked a group of teachers their primary concern outside the school’s walls. Almost unanimously, they named their educational debt – which several felt was an impediment to continuing in the profession.

Locally, DU’s Morgridge School of Education’s Teacher Education Program has a cost equal to its long title: an estimated $34,791, including roughly $20,500 in tuition and fees (it’s private). For a comparison, look at Metropolitan State’s Alternative Licensure Program, with tuition of $4,900 (it’s public). Forgetting for a minute the lost wages while one pursues a teaching certificate, to which of the above would you direct an aspiring teacher, knowing that DPS’s starting salary is $37,551? How much better would the private program need to be? How do you measure it?

It’s not an easy time for higher education, and teacher preparation is a complex problem. Teacher salaries are unlikely to rise substantially, despite both ample need and common sense. And yet it remains deeply unclear how much traditional licensure programs — and the accompanying time and money — truly help.

The lack of a correlation between an advanced degree and teacher quality is well documented, while TFA and others seem to be doing quite well with a five-week intensive course instead of the 12+ months of study. So why do we have so many private programs that encourage teachers to take on debt levels that are often unsuitable for the profession – even with financial aid? To borrow from the litigious student above, doesn’t the leadership at these programs know that they may be burdening students with loans that can force considerable hardship?

Given what is likely to be a lengthy period of slow economic growth, expect a growing desire for students of all stripes to avoid debt loads that are unjustified by their chosen profession. In private business (such as law), we are likely to see some market adjustments to reach an equilibrium. We can all get by with a few less lawyers.

In public education however, there is less of a suitable market mechanism. We need the public school teachers that we need. We owe it to aspiring teachers to make sure that their noble professional choice does not come with crushing debt — which means we need better programs for fewer dollars, or less-expensive alternative paths.

Teaching is an enormously difficult profession for numerous reasons – the debt incurred to teach should not be among them.

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