Higher Education Bubble: “Low-Cost” JD?

April 27th, 2011

Taunya Banks at CoOp writes about recent proposals in Texas to create a $10,000 Baccalaureate degree.

But Texas Governor Rick Perry has thrown down the gauntlet by challenging that state’s public universities (and the nation) to come up with a baccalaureate degree that cost students only $10,000. . . .  What is not addressed by either the Coordinating Board or Commissioner Paredes is the long-term consequence of opting for a low-cost degree.  What happens when students with low-cost degrees apply to graduate and professional schools?  Will their degrees be considered competitive or will these graduates be consigned to jobs that nominally require a college degree?  Will they become second-class college graduates – educated cashiers at fast food restaurants?

I am pretty sure there are plenty of educated cashiers at fast food restaurants with first-class college degrees–who also have over $100,000 in student debt. I’m pretty sure there are even educated JDs working as cashiers with $200,000 in student debt. What these “stripped-down” degrees permit is someone to start (a starting job is just that, a starting job, not a final career) their lives and careers without a massive cloud of non-dischargeable debt. That could be a blessing for many.

I’m fairly certain these degrees would be accredited by whatever accreditation bodies exist. Now, some may argue that these accreditation organizations are rubbish. I probably agree. And I’m pretty sure that many “high-cost” colleges, which provide little if any education to students, also receive accreditation. The conclusion that cheaper degrees would automatically be of less quality does not necessarily follow.

Moving onto higher education, Banks concedes that tuition costs are probably too high, and that educators should take steps to lower the costs.

But hopefully few of us want any variation of the Texas two-tier model, for if Texas has its way “low-cost” JD and MD degrees may not be far behind.  I doubt that anyone wants to be treated by a physician with a low-cost medical degree, and I certainly would not want to be represented by a lawyer with a low-cost law degree.

I reject this reasoning. By “low-cost’ JD and MD, I think Banks really means “low-quality” JDs. No one has an objection to a cheap degree in the abstract. The objection is to a degree that is cheap, and is perceived, or in reality, provides less education.

Needless to say, there are many “low-quality” JDs in existence today. Except they are really, really, really expensive. Many unaccredited, and barely accredited law schools charge students over $30,000 a year, and give them almost no prospects of obtaining employment as an attorney. If a “low-quality” JD would also be “low-cost,” at least that may be a deal for someone who thinks he or she can beat the odds. Simply charging a lot of a degree does not make it worthwhile.

Further,  I think Banks conflates “low-quality” school with “low-quality” attorneys. Those need not be the same thing. Which would you prefer? A graduate from a top tier law school who ranked at the bottom of his class, and failed the bar 4 times before passing, or a graduate from a bottom tier law school (“low-cost”) who passed the bar on the first time, and graduated #1 in his or her class? Frankly, if someone from a “low-cost” law school passes the same bar with someone from a “high-cost” (read high-quality) law school, shouldn’t they be peers? Shouldn’t we look at them equally?

A low-cost JD, if such a program can actually prepare someone to take and pass the bar, would be a blessing to the legal profession. Attorneys would no longer graduate with massive debt. Perhaps they can venture into public service work or engage in more pro bono activity? What is the alternative? Graduating with a quarter million of debt, and finding that you are unable to pass the bar or get a job. Working as a cashier? Wouldn’t it be better to reach that end with less debt?

I am all in favor of lowering the barriers to entry to the legal profession. Lowering the price of a JD would be a wonderful way to accomplish this.