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One of the more excruciating scenes in the 1967 film The Graduate, which centers on an aimless young man who can’t figure out what he’s supposed to do with his life after graduating from an Ivy League college, takes place when the protagonist attempts to have an actual conversation with the middle-aged married woman with whom he’s having an affair. Desperately fishing about for a topic, he tries to get her to talk about art. She refuses, stating that this topic holds no interest for her. Moving on to more personal questions, he goes on to discover that she is a profoundly bored alcoholic who hasn’t slept in the same room as her husband in five years, and who married him because he got her pregnant when he was a law student and she was a freshman at the same fancy university. The conversation ends like this:

What was your major?

Why are you asking me all this?

Because I’m interested, Mrs. Robinson.
Now what was your major subject
at college?



She nods.

But I thought you – I guess you
kind of lost interest in it over
the years then.

Kind of.

Now I’m actually a big fan of liberal arts education. I believe in learning for its own sake, that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, that civilization is superior to barbarism (whether neolithic or post-industrial), that a genuinely educated citizenry is crucial to maintaining democracy as something more than a word, and all that sort of thing. On a related point, I believe if university academics are going to study and write about law, they should do it in a genuinely academic way, as opposed to cranking out glorified briefs and bench memos that are supposedly “helpful” to lawyers and judges, i.e., traditional doctrinal law review articles. So I have nothing against “Law and . . .” Indeed to the extent that law school is structured as a form of graduate education there should be nothing but “law and.”

But law school should not be structured as a form of graduate education, because structuring that way makes it cost far too much. It’s a mistake to think that law school used to be cheap but is now expensive. Law school was always expensive, even a generation ago when Harvard cost barely more than $10,000 per year in 2011 dollars, and resident tuition at state law schools was almost nominal (the University of Colorado’s law school tuition 30 years ago was $975, i.e., about $200 per month in real current money).

Law school has always been expensive because the opportunity cost of going to law school has always been high. Taking yourself out of the labor market for three years at the beginning of your working life is a very costly investment in your future. So a generation ago, when private school tuition was in real terms a fourth of what it is today and public law school tuition was practically free, law school still cost a lot in real economic terms. Today, of course, the cost of law school has gone from significant to basically insane. On top of the opportunity cost you’re supposed to pay borrow at very high interest rates a sum of money that would outright buy a fairly decent three-bedroom house in many parts of this fair nation.

At no time in the past would the present cost of law school have made sense for anything approaching a majority of law students, and looking forward it makes even less sense. It’s one of those things, like three-bedroom houses in Las Vegas selling for $600,000 in 2006, that happened because it was in the interest of powerful political and economic interests for it to happen, not because it made the slightest degree of sense as matter of rational social action.

Law school in America has developed or devolved into a kind of faux-graduate school experience, in which with limited exceptions less pretense than ever is made of engaging in vocational training. But here’s the punch line: Do you know what graduate school generally costs? Nothing. Now this isn’t true at all in genuine economic terms, as graduate students still incur big opportunity costs and avoid paying tuition by providing plenty of slave labor to keep the wheels of the great American university system turning. Of course at the end of all that there’s a good chance graduate school will end up not being worth it, since the large majority of graduate students don’t end up getting anything like the jobs they went to graduate school in order to get. In other words they’re just like law students, minus the six-figure high interest non-dischargeable debt.

Law school as graduate school is very much a luxury that the vast majority of people who are forced to purchase it can neither afford, nor would they want to buy even if they could actually afford it. This was true when it was practically free, but it’s far more true today, when the total cost of attendance at many schools is approaching a quarter million dollars.

This, I think it’s fair to say, represents something of a market failure.

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  • Waingro

    In other words they’re just like law students, minus the six-figure high interest non-dischargeable debt.

    Plenty of graduate students might not pay tuition (students in professional degree usually do), but still have to borrow for living expenses.

    Law school is no doubt fucked but the bigger problem is the non-dischargeable debt, which applies to nearly everyone who went to college and is un/underemployed.

    • Paul Campos

      I completely agree with this but borrowing for living expenses is a form of opportunity cost (assuming the person who goes to school would otherwise have been doing something that would have at least paid whatever living expenses he or she incurred — an increasingly questionable assumption I know).

    • rea

      Law school is just a particularly egregious example of the problem with all of higher education.

  • njorl

    Do you know what graduate school generally costs? Nothing. Now this isn’t true at all in genuine economic terms, as graduate students still incur big opportunity costs and avoid paying tuition by providing plenty of slave labor to keep the wheels of the great American university system turning.

    It is not the norm, but neither is it rare for companies to pay full-time salary to scientists and engineers whom they send to grad school, while also paying their tuition. Frequently, research and development projects at national labs or defense contractors can serve as thesis topics. You can get paid, not pay tuition, and your resume shows working experience for the time.

    • Bill Murray

      It is generally the norm that engineering graduate students are paid for their work. You can’t bring into the country students that don’t have a promise of a paid assistantship. My graduate students make around $23,000 per year. they also get 2/3 of their tuition paid for (which may be part of the $23,000)

  • Dave

    I’m still confused how we got from Dustin Hoffman to Paul Campos’s favorite subject…

    • stuck working

      It does seem like we could play a version of the Kevin Bacon game here. How can Paul Campos link any topic to the fraud of law school in six sentences or less? Hmm…how about 2 Broke Girls? No, too easy. Maybe the Care Bears?

    • John

      That was indeed a very puzzling transition.

    • elm

      Ditto. The best I have is that since Mr. Robinson was a lawyer and Mrs. Robinson didn’t care about her liberal arts major, lawyers trained as graduate students are likely to become bored academics. Thus, the current law school model is a market failure.

      I know that can’t be right, though.

  • I’m not so sure that “Law and…” is what makes law school so expensive, and I wonder why you are. Of course, I went to law school at a state institution 30 years ago, but it seems to me that some of the most esoteric classes I took are the ones that stayed with me, and still help me to do things like explain things to my clients (or understand them myself). I’m sorry I didn’t take Indian Law– turns out that it is a useful and remunerative thing to know. I wish my school had offered Roman Law– just because it turns out to be the base of so much modern Western jurisprudence. I suppose we could make law school a better economic proposition if we made it a six week Bar/Bri style bar exam prep with some skills components and maybe a course on law office management, but that’s really not the cure for the current crisis. If we are going to make law school rational we are going to have to cut down on the number of law schools, and the number of law students, while containing or even rolling back the base costs. Fewer schools and fewer students means fewer faculty, and that’s a shame. Many law professors aren’t really strong enough to work, and those unfortunates will freeze to death, or starve. The rest will enter the market that they themselves made, and good luck to them.

    • fledermaus

      One of my recurring fantasies is the laid off law prof with a philosophy PhD trying to sell a partner on the value of his legal expertise. Or better yet getting the job and not being able to hack it and getting booted 6 months in. It would serve them right for all the “of course my salary is high because I could be SO MUCH MORE in private practice” BS

  • Tcaalaw

    I’m sorry, but where is this free graduate education that Campos is talking about? When I was applying to Poli Sci graduate programs 14 years ago, I came to the conclusion that, even if I went to the school that gave me the best financial aid offer, I would still have needed to borrow $90K+ to complete a PhD (assuming I borrowed $15K a year for six years). I went to law school because it seemed like a bargain by comparison — complete the degree in half the time and get a job with a median salary more than what I could have expected to earn after getting the PhD.

    • John

      That seems kind of insane. Any reputable grad program will give you a tuition waiver, and most will give you some sort of stipend for living expenses (usually dependent on working as a TA) for at least several of the years. Obviously, you can still run up debt, but the amount you’re proposing seems really high.

      • Linnaeus

        As a Ph.D. student, I’ve run up a pretty considerable amount of debt. I’m probably not the best example, but I know that in my program (history), it’s not at all unusual to have at least some educational debt (in the multiple thousands) for a couple of reasons:

        1. Even with the tuition waiver and a stipend, living in this town is expensive.

        2. You don’t always have consistent funding. Not everyone in our program is funded, and those who are usually get it for the nine months that correspond to the school year. In the summer, you’re on your own unless you qualify for, and are awarded, summer teaching.

        Furthermore, our department guarantees you funding for 3-5 years. Given that average time to degree in history is around nine years (only in philosophy is it longer), this usually isn’t enough. You can get funding past the 5 year mark in our department (I have), but your priority is (understandably) lower and eventually the department will not fund you at all.

        Then there’s the problem of those who gave up departmental funding for a year or two because they got money from another source, then later tried to get department funding they were supposedly still eligible for, since they hadn’t used up their priority years yet, and didn’t get it. This may be a dysfunction particular to our department, though.

      • I thought this was true, but now I don’t know. I’m nearing the end of a doctoral program in English at a large-ish state school, and I did indeed receive an assistantship and tuition waver. This seemed normal. When I started, however, I was surprised to find that, out of the dozen-odd students embarking on this program at the same time I was, I was the only one who had been granted such a thing. Everyone else was paying out of pocket, which frankly struck and strikes me as insane. Really, having no debt is about the only advantage I have.

        I have no idea whether this is a widespread problem or not, but it happened, and I suspect it will happen more in the future as state budgets for education are increasingly eviscerated.

      • Tcaalaw

        I don’t know if the schools I applied to qualified as “reputable,” but the best financial aid offer I got was in-state tuition with a stipend to cover the remaining tuition by ASU in Tucson. The other schools I was accepted at (University of Maryland and University of North Carolina) offered me zip in financial aid.

        • djw

          Interesting. My only outcomes were rejection (including UNC, where you got in) and admittance with stipend funding, or a strong position on a ‘waiting list’ for funding in a department where everyone on the waiting list always eventually got it.

          At any rate, most departments up and down the rankings are largely populated by students that have funding. Many programs have an explicit policy that admission means funding, and don’t admit anyone they won’t commit 5 years of funding to as a matter of policy.

    • djw

      Most PhD programs in Political Science offer funding, which amounts to tuition remission and a stipend in the 12-20K range for five years, to most or all admitted students. This was the case roughly 14 years ago (when I too was applying), and I looked at and applied to schools at the top tier and toward the bottom of the barrel.

      • Tcaalaw

        I would have gone to grad school if I could have found anything like that. The best financial aid offer I got was qualifying for in-state tuition at a state school with a stipend that would have barely covered the in-state tuition (ASU in Tucson). I was anticipating needing to borrow to cover living expenses because, based on talking with students in that program, TA work and tutoring were unlikely to generate enough income.

  • Anderson

    Good post. A good third of the law profs need to be professors of jurisprudence over in the school of liberal arts.

    I think Posner and others have wondered whether law school should even take three whole years, if it’s confined to courses about the practice of law.

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  • njorl

    It’s funny. I’ve seen the graduate many times, but I never noticed, until I saw this still black and white shot, that they don’t look all that different in age. I was compelled to look it up. Bancroft was only 6 years older than Hoffman.

    • CJColucci

      I was going to make the same point.

  • After reading this kind of post, it makes me very glad I didn’t go to graduate school after uni.

  • Lurker

    Coming from Finland, I’d like to give a perspective from a different planet.

    Here, grad school is free. (Med school and law school are also tuition-free, but they are undergrad programs.) Almost anyone with a master’s degree and an acceptably high GPA can get admitted to a doctoral program. However, that gives so few privileges that it doesn’t really mean anything. As a grad student, you don’t even get most student discounts. Essentially, it just means you have a university email, can do coursework and loiter in the university hallways for the rest of your life. The university doesn’t have any commitment towards you. On the other hand, you don’t have any commitment either. You are not required to take any coursework and cannot lose the study place, once it has been granted. If you never graduate, you just cost the university the hard disk space taken by your registration.

    On the other hand, getting a paid position as a graduate researcher in a research group is somewhat difficult, and funding is limited. At least in engineering and science, it is almost impossible to get a Ph.D without being a member of such group. In any case, you will graduate without any student loans, and the salary has been probably so good that you have been able to repay much of your undergrad student loans (that are in the order of 10 k€ or less).

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