Drexel Picked a Bad Time to Open a New Law School

What's happening to one post-grad specialty could presage the future for higher ed as a whole.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a funny thing has happened to young people in America: They no longer want to be lawyers. Or at least, not nearly as many do now as did back in the days when a law degree was seen as the sure ticket to endless riches (and you didn’t even have to take bio or chem., like those sucker doctor wannabes).

First-year enrollees tumbled from 52,488 in 2010-’11 to 48,697 in 2011-’12. The bad news? That’s because law firms laid attorneys off by the gazillions when the recession finally smacked them in 2009. The good news? It’s much easier to get into law school than it used to be. What’s more, they’ll pay you more to go. Accepted students are playing show-and-tell, informing law schools of the scholarships and aid being offered them by competing institutions; law schools anxious to keep tuition high in order to maintain their auras of exclusivity and prestige, not to mention their almighty rankings, are quietly sweetening the pot. According to the WSJ, every single member of the University of Illinois’s law-school class of 2014 received a scholarship—even those who were wait-listed. Oh, and if you missed the application deadline? Some schools are so eager to fill classes—and coffers—that they’ll now let you apply even after the official deadline has passed. Uh, Drexel? You may have picked the wrong time to open your new law school.

It makes sense, I guess, that would-be lawyers are the first to wise up to the fact that law schools need them as much as they need law schools. Lawyers are sharp, right? Good negotiators? Always out to make a buck? It may take a while longer for chumpy, schlumpy English majors and would-be chemists and history nerds to realize the recession has lent them negotiating clout. But the enormous growth of late in the number of college students filling their first two years with community-college courses that cost a tenth—or less—of what four-year campuses charge augurs an injection of sanity into the madness we’ve let college admissions become.

It was one thing when parents were investing, say, $12,601 for each of four years for their offspring—the national average at four-year private colleges in 1991-’92. Back then, that undergrad degree in Spanish literature or communications or women’s studies cost just over 50 grand. Today, the average cost per year is $28,500, for a grand total of $114,000. That’s a helluva lot to pay for a degree in anything. And more and more, the burden’s shifted from parents to the students themselves, with the result that Americans owe more on their student loans than they do on credit cards.

Student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz told NPR that if the cost of a “better”—i.e., more desirable—college these days is only $1,000 a year, students and their parents are opting to go for broke. But when that cost differential rises to $5,000 or more, they’re dialing back. The educa-mania of recent years resembles nothing so much as the “tulipomania” that struck the Netherlands in the 1600s. But there was also la grande folie of the dot-com bubble, not to mention the subprime mortgage crisis that hit not even 10 years later. We seem to be becoming more and more anxious to find easy ways to get rich. Enrollment numbers at law schools say we’re not convinced they’re the path to wealth and happiness any longer. Dare we say it? Could business schools like Wharton that train financiers to elevate moneymaking above all else possibly be next? Yes! And no!