ED Data Tell Us Why Researchers Shouldn’t Lump Law Degrees with Other Professional Degrees

If you read large scale studies on higher education that include law degrees—such as the Pew Center’s “Is College Worth It?” and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s “The College Payoff”—you’ll find that researchers tend to lump law degrees in with all other first professional degrees. In doing so, they commit an ecological fallacy: “Professional degree-holders make millions of dollars more than had they not gone, law degrees are professional degrees, therefore law degree-holders make millions of dollars more than had they not gone.” Q.E.D., except not. Alternatively, they equivocate holding a law degree and employment as an attorney. Oh, and don’t you dare get me started again on Cooley’s Report One, which uses lawyer unemployment rates as a proxy for law graduate unemployment rates.

Thanks to new juicy, juicy higher education data ED has been tracking for us, we can make a better comparison of professional degrees’ values and hopefully provide insight where Pew and Georgetown do not.

Behold: the Digest of Education Statistics: 2010. Table 290 compares the number of dental, medical, and law degrees conferred for the better part of the last sixty years. It also counts all universities that are eligible for Title IV funding, so, for example, the number of law schools it counts differs from the number that are ABA-accredited.

I’m guessing most law schools “Seeking ABA Accreditation” are probably already eligible for Title IV funding. Beyond that, those concerned that ED’s number of law graduates differs from the ABA’s can rest easy. They are close to identical.

I think it’s safe to assume that Table 290 is just as accurate for medical and dental degrees, though it doesn’t include the 25 osteopathic medical schools operating in the U.S. yet Table 291 has the number of recent D.O. degrees conferred. Table 348 gives us average tuition for most professional programs going back to 1988, and with the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s (BLS) CPI calculator, I’ve recalculated the tuitions in 2010 dollars.

We can have fun with these two tables, for if ED thinks it’s okay to put these three professions together, so do I.

First, to directly refute the researchers, here’s what the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook says about these three professions’ job prospects:

Lawyers:

About as fast as the average employment growth is projected, but job competition is expected to be keen.

Job prospects. Competition for job openings should continue to be keen because of the large number of students graduating from law school each year. Graduates with superior academic records from highly regarded law schools will have the best job opportunities. Perhaps as a result of competition for attorney positions, lawyers are increasingly finding work in less traditional areas for which legal training is an asset, but not normally a requirement—for example, administrative, managerial, and business positions in banks, insurance firms, real estate companies, government agencies, and other organizations. Employment opportunities are expected to continue to arise in these organizations at a growing rate.

As in the past, some graduates may have to accept positions outside of their field of interest or for which they feel overqualified.

Physicians and Surgeons:

Employment is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations. Job opportunities should be very good, particularly in rural and low-income areas.

Job prospects. Opportunities for individuals interested in becoming physicians and surgeons are expected to be very good. In addition to job openings from employment growth, openings will result from the need to replace the relatively high number of physicians and surgeons expected to retire over the 2008-18 decade.

Job prospects should be particularly good for physicians willing to practice in rural and low-income areas because these medically underserved areas typically have difficulty attracting these workers. Job prospects will also be especially good for physicians in specialties that afflict the rapidly growing elderly population. Examples of such specialties are cardiology and radiology because the risks for heart disease and cancer increase as people age.

Dentists:

Employment is projected to grow faster than the average. Job prospects should be good, reflecting the need to replace the large number of dentists expected to retire.

Job prospects. As an increasing number of dentists from the baby-boom generation reach retirement age, many of them will retire or work fewer hours and stop taking on new patients. Furthermore, the number of applicants to, and graduates from, dental schools has increased in recent years. Job prospects should be good, because younger dentists will be able to take over the work of older dentists who retire or cut back on hours, as well as provide dental services to accommodate the growing demand.

Do the ED tables give us insight as to how we ended up here? I think so. First, we don’t know if there’s been solid demand for doctors and dentists, if not a shortage, going back to the 1950s, nor do we know if there was some idyllic time when anyone who graduated law school could at the very least open his own practice and represent clients with minimum competition and the benefits of now-illegal fee schedules. That said, with lower tuition, far fewer student loans, dischargeability, a growing legal sector, and a growing economy for those who couldn’t flourish, the legal profession of the 1950s probably resembled the high-status career-spanning profession that medicine or dentistry remain today.

Let’s begin.

(1)  For whatever reason, there have always been more law schools than the other types, and while they’ve all declined relative to the population, law schools have leveled off in the last two decades.

(2)  More importantly, the number of degrees conferred at Title-IV-eligible law schools more than tripled between the early 60s and the mid-1970s, despite a disruption likely due to the Vietnam-era draft. In the same time frame, medical degrees grew by about 60% and dental degrees by about 45%. You can also clearly see how the number of law degrees ticks upwards about three years after a recession.

(3)  Even in the last twenty years, the number of law grads has grown. Assuming a 35-year career span for professional degree-holders indicates the profession’s overall growth rate, the legal profession continues to expand in the 21st century while the other two professions do not. Indeed, the rate at which universities have conferred law degrees is higher than that of the other two professions.

The Wayback Machine tells us the BLS’s Occupation Outlook Handbook’s number of employed professionals, including self-employed ones, between 1994 and 2008.[1] Mapping this against the 35-year professional degrees rate suggests that far more people went to law school than necessary in the last few decades.

(4)  Medical school and dental school are both more expensive than law school, both public and private.

Because law school is only three years and not four like the other two professions, its students frequently pay less.

However, law school tuition is the fastest growing of the three, though private dental schools are close behind private law schools.

(5)  Law school tuition is growing faster than the other types of professional education and even all 4-year undergraduate degrees, according to Table 348.

Public Tuition 2008-2009 ($2010) Public Tuition Growth Since 1988 Private Tuition 2008-2009 ($2010) Private Tuition Growth Since 1988
4-Year Undergrad $6,393 +141% $24,951 +75%
Law $18,697 +267% $36,077 +98%
Medicine $23,252 +123% $41,817 +45%
Dentistry $25,104 +158% $55,474 +87%
Osteopathic Medicine $21,165 +83% $37,178 +49%

So let’s compare the three professions qualitatively:

LAW MEDICINE DENTISTRY
Per Capita Professional School Growth 1955-2008 -16% -10.8% -28.58%
Per Capita Professional Degree Growth 1955-2008 +189.12% +27.3% -11.37%
Real Total Public Tuition 2008 Grads $53,471 $89,607 $92,081
Real Total Private Tuition 2008 Grads $105,425 $163,840 $214,050
Real Public Tuition Growth Since 1988 +267% +123% +158%
Real Private Tuition Growth Since 1988 +98% +45% +87%
Undergraduate Course Requirements None “Pre-med” Science Courses Required “Pre-dental” Science Courses Required
Projected Job Openings by 2018 240,400 260,500 61,500
Projected Grads by 2018 440,045 196,520 (Includes D.O.s) 49,180
Job Outlook 18.3 Grads per 10 Jobs 7.5 Grads per 10 Jobs 8 Grads per 10 Jobs

One could research this more thoroughly than I just did, but I think this comparison demonstrates that the law school expansion of the 1960s and 1970s contributed to the situation we have today. Lacking undergraduate course requirements didn’t help much either. That said, we should not view medicine or dentistry as models for legal education reform. Deliberately maintaining a shortage of practitioners drives up medical costs, which is especially irresponsible for a country that lacks a public health care system. Legal education reform should take a more innovative path that disserves neither consumers of legal services nor lawyers.

To editorialize some: What also surprises me is that despite these two labor cartels, public criticism is directed at law schools’ pathologies to promote a deregulation agenda for legal services. Why aren’t the Clifford Winstons and Robert Crandalls of the world demanding that we strip the American Medical Association and American Dental Association of their accreditation authority? Or allow people to practice medicine without taking specific undergraduate courses, attending school for four years, working as residents for several more years, and taking boards? Why aren’t they demanding that nurses be allowed to sign prescriptions, or dental hygienists to pull teeth? These appear to be bigger problems than the cost of high-end legal services, which J-Dog points out aren’t fungible no matter how much we deregulate them.

Returning to the topic, the fact that the two other professions didn’t grow beyond economic need helps explain why they can maintain such rigid requirements, charge so much, yet not proliferate dental school scam blogs. This is not an opinion of their curricula, nor is my point to reduce the reform movement to a sociological phenomenon. Rather, this comparison shows that law schools’ problems are the result of choices made by the profession. Choices that will result in a humiliating contraction. The only remaining question is who will bring this about.

Oh, and where are the business school scam blogs?


[1] Here are links to archived OOH reports.

Lawyers: 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006.

Doctors and Physicians: 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006.

Dentists: 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006.

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