Career Lies My Graduate School Told Me

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Lately the efforts of a trio of advocates to sue law schools on behalf of unemployed graduates have gained much media attention. Eager, but out-of-work graduates make compelling figures on the evening news, especially when they are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and have passed the bar but are working in bars because they can't even get a job interview with a law firm.

The lawsuits, alleging that the schools have been misleading students about their postgraduate employment prospects, have helped stoke a certain amount of indignation because job prospects for lawyers have been declining for years, yet law schools have continued expanding enrollments. Some schools have apparently lured students by advertising job placement rates for graduates of 90 percent or better, even though there is currently only one job for every two law school graduates in the country. If consumer advocates and government watchdogs can go after so-called for-profit and technical schools for misleading students about their job prospects, why not traditional law schools, too?

Although the lawsuits seem somewhat quixotic right now, if they succeed in pressuring schools to provide more detailed information about how their graduates perform in the job market (and maybe even prompt some schools to issue tuition rebates as part of broader settlements), the legal action could reverberate well beyond law. The next target could well be university graduate programs that for years have been producing Master's and PhD grads for whom there is little or no gainful employment. Programs in fields like the humanities, where some professors claim schools have been misleading students for 40 years about job prospects, or grad schools in disappearing fields like journalism, might suddenly find themselves ripe for similar suits.

William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English Literature, has been a harsh critic of schools which continue to churn out PhD graduates who have no prospect of gainful employment in the one area in which they are qualified, namely teaching in a college. In a series of commentaries in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pannapacker paints a distressing picture of humanities graduate schools operated for the pleasure of the professoriate, in which students pursuing careers for which there are no job prospects are "an acceptable externality, like dumping toxins into a river."

Over a 20 year period from 1987 through 2007, he notes, humanities programs sharply increased the annual number of doctoral students they graduated, from 2,991 to 4,366. Those increases came even as colleges and universities cut their tenure track positions and substituted adjunct and part-time positions, producing "ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility." Those who tried to find work outside the academy discovered they were unemployable, avoided by suspicious corporate recruiters who wonder about all those years spent on campus.

These students, you're thinking, have only themselves to blame. Surely with a little bit of research they could have figured out just how bad things are.

"The problem is that there is still almost no way - apart from the rumor mill to which they do not really have access - for students to gather some of the most crucial information about graduate programs: the rate of attrition, the average amount of debt at graduation, and, most important, the placement of graduates (differentiating between adjunct, lecturer, visiting, tenure-track positions, and nonacademic positions)," writes Pannapacker. "Programs often claim that graduates who are working as adjuncts or visiting faculty members are successfully placed in the profession." Without accurate data, students are susceptible to career advice like, "There are always jobs for good people" and "don't worry, massive retirements are coming soon, and then there will be plenty of positions available."

This has been going on for long enough that schools have had plenty of time to adjust, if they cared to. Back in 1979 another English professor, Darcy O'Brien, wrote virtually the same thing as Pannapeckder is writing today. In a New York Times essay, A Generation of Lost Scholars, O'Brien accused humanities programs of ignoring the dismal job prospects of students and encouraging many to head into years of fruitless study.

In our rapidly evolving economy, how long before we should expect schools to adjust their admission policies in the face of declining job prospects in their fields? It's a question worth asking as whole professions shrink rapidly.

Unlike the job prospects of humanities students, which have been declining for decades, journalism was a growing field until somewhat recently. The romantic notion of the journalist who made a difference, guys like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their All The President's Men, nourished the field and prompted a generation of kids to head to J-school.

Much has changed. The field has been shrinking for at least a decade, as thousands of jobs disappear in newsrooms, at local TV stations and among the wire services. Morale in these places is often at rock bottom. But our J-schools roll on, expanding enrollment, graduating each year tens of thousands of students with bachelor degrees and a few thousand more with a Master's into a market that isn't merely going through some cyclical downturn.

The numbers can be ugly. According to the most recent Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates, 18 percent of all those with a journalism Master's degree are unemployed, while 15 percent are employed just part-time and only 57 percent have full-time jobs. Those numbers haven't changed much over the last decade. The unemployment rate of Master's degree holders was 21 percent in 2005, a year of robust economic expansion.

Still, despite those numbers, there's a certain amount of happy talk among J-school profs about the field, with some noting that while traditional jobs are shrinking, there's always blogging and social media and even collaborating "with non-for-profits to write civic journalism," whatever that is. Or, worst comes to worst, as one prof advises, you can always "create your own job" in this infinitely fascinating online universe we all now inhabit. Unfortunately, I can't tell you how much these so-called jobs pay.

As someone who took a degree in the humanities many years ago, I'm aware of how crass I might sound with all this talk of employment and good pay as the ultimate end of higher education. Whatever happened to pursuing the "life of the mind," as Professor Pannapacker describes it, for a few years, then moving on to a career?

The problem is that this is no longer about spending a few years of college ‘finding yourself.' Today, post-grad work in some fields resembles pre-school for 20-somethings, a place to pass an ever-lengthening part of their lives. And many of these students chasing their academic dreams without much prospect of employment afterwards are emerging from school with tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, of dollars of debt.

If you paid attention to the Occupy Wall Street protests you know that many of the protestors were rankled about the huge student loan debts they hold today. Some of them clamored for debt-forgiveness programs.

This is why it's not enough simply to look at what is happening in our law schools and our graduate programs and say about unemployed graduates, ‘they should have known better." A few such grads deep in debt make for an interesting piece on the nightly news. But a whole cohort of students swimming in debt and brandishing useless degrees gets people saying, "someone should do something about that." And the ‘someone" is often the government.

This is why I find myself strangely cheering for the plaintiffs' advocates in the law school case. They're alleging that there's a racket going on at law schools. I think that racket extends to other postgraduate education, too. Maybe it's time more people took on that racket.


Steven Malanga is an editor for RealClearMarkets and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

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