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The Million Dollar Law Degree: NYU Law School Edition

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This horrifying New Yorker article on America’s geriatric student loan debtors, which you should read in full, features a striking anecdote about the wonderful world of Elite Law Schools ™:

On a warm October evening, in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood in a baseball field in Pittsburgh, delivering an impassioned speech about passion’s improbable subject: the federal budget. “Sometime, somewhere in this campaign, I have got to talk dollars and cents, and it’s a terrible thing to ask you people to listen for forty-five minutes to the story of the federal budget, but I am going to ask you do it,” he told the crowd. In the back of the park, a two-year-old Black girl named Betty Ann sat on the shoulders of her father, Robert, as he strained to point out the man he was sure would become President. Robert was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican—his grandfather, an enslaved man from Virginia, had been emancipated by President Abraham Lincoln. Still, he felt compelled by F.D.R.’s message. Hard times had meant he had started to pay the reporters of Pittsburgh’s Black newspaper, which he ran, out of his own pocket. Much to his distress, his wife had taken to standing in relief lines in order to feed Betty Ann and her sisters. A few weeks later, when Robert cast his ballot for F.D.R., he wept, aghast to vote against the party of Lincoln. Thereafter, he became a devoted Democrat and jumped into local politics with fervor until he fell ill, five years later. He had two dying wishes: for his wife to take over his role as a Democratic ward chairperson, and for Betty Ann and her sisters to go to college.

The family made good on both: as ward chairwoman, Robert’s wife maintained the family home as a community backbone, and Betty Ann, who asked that she and her family members be identified by first name only, grew up with a steady stream of neighbors flowing through the house. Although her mother had no money, Betty Ann was a strong student and earned enough scholarships to receive a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education. In the next few decades, she worked as a public-school teacher in Pittsburgh and Harlem, in addition to raising two children as a single mother. But she grew increasingly frustrated by the marks of educational inequity—moldy lunches, low-grade reading materials—that plagued her classrooms. “I thought the only way that I could change things was to have a higher degree,” she told me.

In 1983, at the age of fifty-two, Betty Ann enrolled in New York University’s law school. As a middle-aged Black woman, she wasn’t exactly the typical N.Y.U. law student. Her white male classmates would slyly elbow her books off the long library tables, and once, while standing at her locker, a classmate waved a ten-thousand-dollar tuition check, signed by his father, in her face. Betty Ann had borrowed twenty-nine thousand dollars in federal loans. Today, she owes $329,309.69 in student debt. She is ninety-one years old.

After graduating from NYU’s law school in her mid-50s, Betty Ann spent 30 years working full-time for a non-profit organization at near minimum wage — a job from which she retired just recently.

I did a little digging, and here’s NYU’s law school tuition IN 2022 DOLLARS I REPEAT IN 2022 DOLLARS THAT MEANS ADJUSTED FOR INFLATION NOT NOMINAL DOLLARS:

1963: $12,171

1983: $25,083

2022: $73,216

I guess she should have taken that job with Sullivan & Cromwell.

Hey how is that College Degree Premium ™ going?

Median Hourly Wage By Educational Attainment (Constant Dollars):

Four-year College Graduates

1999: $28.58

2019: $28.89

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