The bubble analogy does work in one respect: education costs, and student debt, are rising at what seem like unsustainable rates. But this isn’t the result of collective delusion. Instead, it stems from the peculiar economics of education, which have a lot in common with the economics of health care, another industry with a huge cost problem. (Indeed, in recent decades the cost of both college education and health care has risen sharply in most developed countries, not just the U.S.) Both industries suffer from an ailment called Baumol’s cost disease, which was diagnosed by the economist William Baumol, back in the sixties. Baumol recognized that some sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, have rising productivity—they regularly produce more with less, which leads to higher wages and rising living standards. But other sectors, like education, have a harder time increasing productivity. Ford, after all, can make more cars with fewer workers and in less time than it did in 1980. But the average student-teacher ratio in college is sixteen to one, just about what it was thirty years ago. In other words, teachers today aren’t any more productive than they were in 1980. The problem is that colleges can’t pay 1980 salaries, and the only way they can pay 2011 salaries is by raising prices. And the Baumol problem is exacerbated by the arms-race problem: colleges compete to lure students by investing in expensive things, like high-profile faculty members, fancy facilities, and a low student-to-teacher ratio.
The college-bubble argument makes the solution to rising costs seem simple: if people just wake up, the bubble will pop, and reasonable prices will return. It’s much tougher to admit that there is no easy way out. Maybe we need to be willing to spend more and more of our incomes and taxpayer dollars on school, or maybe we need to be willing to pay educators and administrators significantly less, or maybe we need to find ways to make colleges more productive places, which would mean radically changing our idea of what going to college is all about.
Here's what a famous, former Times reporter offered me by way of explanation:
Too few reporters, far too few copy editors, lots of talent left for better pay elsewhere, travel budgets too small and war coverage is super costly (Bagdahd bureau costs $5m per year at least). Not a happy shop.
ADDENDUM: A colleague at Michigan writes:
I just wanted to thank you for staying on the New York Times for their flabby reporting on law schools. But I fear the underlying problem might go far deeper than the issues you mentioned in your blog post from this morning. Beyond the extraordinarily serious Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals, the Times coverage of intellectual and academic issues in general has been in serious decline of late -- perhaps since the failed "Ideas and Culture" section. The book review has been in serious decline for several years now -- currently featuring mostly popular, trade, and journalistic reviews (I know few academics that take it seriously any longer). Most recently, the Times featured a review of new NYT executive editor Jill Abrahamson's book on . . . HER PUPPY! And if that wasn't bad enough -- the "editors" then made it an official "editor's choice" --thus boosting their own editor's sales (ah . . . the rebound of journalistic ethics since Blair)! The Week in Review section used to have some serious intellectual content -- thanks to some excellent academic op-ed contributors. But if you want some idea of where that's headed (now being run by the same folks who presided over the decline of the Book Review), check out the bottom of p. 2 of the re-dubbed "Sunday Review" section -- there's a column labelled "Download" by Kate Murphy (described as a "journalist in Houston who writes frequently for the New York Times") -- it's about "Kelly Rowland" of "Destiny's Child" fame . . . there are almost no words by Kate Murphy -- the "journalist in Houston" -- just one word questions for Rowland where under "READING" we learn that Rowland bought (she doesn't actually say "is reading") a copy of a recent Marvin Gaye biography at a music museum and that she is also reading Great Gatsby (my sense is that if one never reads anything, that one can always at least recall having been assigned the Great Gatsby in high school . . . i.e., it is commonly understood as a book that many people frequently claim to have read in magazine and newspaper features like "DOWNLOAD"). We also learn that Rowland is "WATCHING" "everything on You Tube there is to watch." On twitter, she is "FOLLOWING" "friends and some of my fans who review things I do." Good grief -- we're in the belly of the beast!
Anyway, sorry to belabor the issue, but I am grateful that you're keeping up the pressure on NYT -- we are quickly losing a wonderful national intellectual resource.
American legal education is in crisis. The economic downturn has left many recent law graduates saddled with crushing student loans and bleak job prospects. The law schools have been targets of lawsuits by students and scrutiny from the United States Senate for alleged false advertising about potential jobs. Yet, at the same time, more and more Americans find that they cannot afford any kind of legal help.
Global capitalism is in crisis, and some law schools may be too (perhaps deservedly so), but it's just a massive non-sequitur to infer from the facts that some law schools have been sued (in lawsuits of unclear merits), that many law school graduates are unemployed, and that we need more affordable legal services for more people that legal education is any kind of crisis as all. Can the NY Times editorial board really believe that a change in law school instructional methods will affect the availability of new jobs for lawyers, whether in the private or public sector? That jobs will emerge from thin air to reward the newly-minted, deserving, and suitably re-educated young lawyers? Apparently so!
Addressing these issues requires changing legal education and how the profession sees its responsibility to serve the public interest as well as clients. Some schools are moving in promising directions. The majority are still stuck in an outdated instructional and business model.
Actually, no: "changing legal education" will make as little difference to these issues as "changing medical education" will solve the problems facing American healthcare. The collapse of a meaningful and well-funded public sector, spiralling costs of essential services (whether legal or medical or educational), and dramatic inequalities in American life are all artifacts of the neoliberal paradigm that has defined the last thirty years. The Times should get back to chiding Obama for being the latest Democratic aider and abettor of these neoliberal trends!
The problems are not new. In 2007, a report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching explained that law schools have contributed heavily to this crisis by giving “only casual attention to teaching students how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice.”
Actually, the Carnegie Foundation report did not attribute any of "this crisis" to the current structure of legal education. It did call for better skills training and more clinical opportunities--in order to improve the quality of education--but it was not, thankfully, in the grips of the Times's peculiar fantasies about cause-and-effect. (Wouldn't it be grand if changing the law school curriculum could solve all the problems the Times identifies?)
Instead of a curriculum taught largely through professors’ grilling of students about appellate cases [i.e., "the Socratic method"], some schools are offering more apprentice-style learning in legal clinics and more courses that train students for their multiple future roles as advocates and counselors, negotiators and deal-shapers, and problem-solvers.
The "Socratic method" of legal instruction has been in declining use for forty years (thank God!)--somehow the editorial board of the New York Times missed that--and every law school offers substantial clinical opportunities--some schools have even taken to requiring the latter, which seems to me a mistake, given the diversity of tasks that lawyers perform (some will never set foot in a courtroom, some will never negotiate a deal, some will never write a brief, some will never conduct a regulatory compliance review, and so on). And beyond the first year, of course, almost the entire curriculum is elective, so that students have the freedom to design the course of study they want, not the one the New York Times imagines. An editorial about the law school curriculum ought, one might hope, be based on some actual idea of what it looks like.
But the Times is taken with the idea that what ails the American legal profession is traceable to poor old Langdell:
In American law schools, the choice is not between teaching legal theory or practice; the task is to teach useful legal ideas and skills in more effective ways. The case method has been the foundation of legal education for 140 years. Its premise was that students would learn legal reasoning by studying appellate rulings. That approach treated law as a form of science and as a source of truth.
That vision was dated by the 1920s. It was a relic by the 1960s. Law is now regarded as a means rather than an end, a tool for solving problems. In reforming themselves, law schools have the chance to help reinvigorate the legal profession and rebuild public confidence in what lawyers can provide.
It's been a bad week for Langdell in The New York Times! He did think the key to a scientific study of law was the "case method," but not because it taught "legal reasoning" (though it could help with that), but because it allowed one to discover the basic principles of law in each field. That "vision" was not dated by the 1920s--an allusion to American Legal Realism, I suppose--but it was altered: whereas Langdell gave us Cases on the Law of Contracts, the Realists added "Cases and Materials" to the standard law school coursebook, premised on the (correct) idea that without knowledge of surrounding historical and social circumstances, as well as prevailing economic and business practices, one could not understand the evolution of the law or the actual significance of court decisions. But the Realists, like Langdell, aimed to teach students the law: indeed, it surely bears emphasizing that the Realists (unlike the editorial writers for The New York Times) were overwhelmingly lawyers immersed in the world of practice and sensitive to how the law and courts really operate.
No one in the history of American legal education ever believed law was "an end" rather than "a means," perhaps because it's not even clear what it could mean to believe the former. What everyone from Langdell onwards did believe was that there was something to learn about the law and legal institutions that could be taught in law schools. And it turns out they were right. Indeed, if the editorial pontificators at the Times had even a minimal amount of knowledge about law and legal education, they would know that in England, the Langdellian vision of legal study remains intact, without even its Realist modifications, and yet somehow the English legal system carries on, rather well even. Why isn't English legal education "in crisis"? Probably because it's cheaper (in part because it involves far fewer clinical opportunities) and it's an undergraduate degree--the latter a real reform that perhaps deserves some serious discussion. And perhaps, too, because newspaper editorialists there are better able at discerning the real causes of economic malaise.
Cut to the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic. It's the old story: law school clinic work is unpopular. Local industry gets sued. Politicians respond. Here, Maryland's Governor wrote a tough letter pressing the clinic to drop a suit against a Maryland farmer/polluter. This follows similar pressure from legislators last year. The good news: Dean Phoebe Haddon is pushing back. You can find letters from both the Governor and Haddon here.
12/13 UPDATE: I appreciate Professor Fish's link to this piece, but I should emphasize that my point is that immediate practical utility is not the benchmark for serious scholarship; law schools should, of course, also teach lots of things of practical utility, and they all do.
Let's start with the hyperbolic title of the piece: "What they don't teach law students: lawyering." But, of course, the actual evidence adduced doesn't support that conclusion, but a different one: namely, that there are some tasks lawyers perform that they didn't learn in law school. Obviously what law schools do teach--knowledge of the basic doctrine in central areas of law like contracts, torts, and property, as well as more specialized fields like antitrust and corporate tax; legal research and writing; the analysis of judicial opinions and the general skill of "legal reasoning"--are all part of lawyering. So the only additional question is: what else should law schools teach?
A sidebar column lists skills that "corporate clients wish associates were taught in law schools," including, for example, "Greater familiarity with transactions law, including how to draft, evaluate and challenge a contract." But this is already puzzling, as I'm not aware of a law school that doesn't offer a class on contract drafting. Other examples: "knowing how to settle a case" and "deeper knowledge of regulatory law and the ability to respond to a regulatory inquiry or enforcement action." One might reasonably ask how one actually teaches the former, though perhaps clinical simulations could discharge the task. (Here's a little secret that never gets mentioned in these kinds of articles: namely, that the big law firms often balk at law schools teaching these kinds of "know-how" skills, because they prefer to train the new lawyers to do it the firm's way, not the law school's way.) As to the latter, every law school has extensive offerings pertaining to "regulatory law" (administrative law, telecommunications law, health law and so on are staples of the law school curriculum), where they probably don't do as well is in teaching "the ability to respond to a regulatory inquiry or enforcement action." But as with "knowing how to settle a case," this gets to the core issue: law schools are good at teaching what philosophers call "knowing that" (propositional knowledge) and not as good at teaching "knowing how". But propositional knowledge is essential for lawyering, and law schools, in general, teach it well. Law schools discharge the teaching of "know-how" skills more unevenly, but they do some quite well, and typically present curricular opportunities to learn most of them.