Law Schools Admit Final Year is Unnecessary — When Will All Universities Do the Same?
January 18, 2013 1 Comment
In what should be a really big deal, two big-time law school administrators are admitting that they’ve been…um…well…charging a lot of students $40k a year for nothing.
The proposal would amend the rules of the New York State Court of Appeals to allow students to take the state bar exam after two years of law school instead of the three now required. Law schools would no doubt continue to provide a third year of legal instruction — and most should (more on that in a bit) — but students would have the option to forgo that third year, save the high cost of tuition and, ideally, find a job right away that puts their legal training to work.
The rationale for reforming the three-year rule, however, is not merely financial. As legal scholars, jurists and experienced attorneys have attested for decades, many law students can, with the appropriate course work, learn in the first two years of law school what they need to get started in their legal careers.
This is startling but welcome admission, and the ramifications go far beyond law school. The fact is, the final year of most undergraduate degrees is also not necessary for the purpose of knowing what you need to start your professional career. We load students with requirements that involve foreign languages, art, and humanities subjects, but if you’re an aspiring engineer these requirements waste your time and cost you money (the same can be said for art students who fulfill a requirement with a sorry excuse of a science course.) That’s not the say that there’s no benefit to having well-rounded college graduates who get their feet wet in a variety of areas. But our current reality is one in which too many students graduate with crushing debt and far too many low-income students don’t have the resources to stay in college for four years. It’s no longer fair for a liberal arts ideal designed for the most well-off to be forced upon students from all economic backgrounds. If you think it’s important to take a variety of classes then by all means go ahead, but it’s not fair to force everybody to do it too.
The broader issue is that in building a system of social mobility we’ve put all of our eggs in the Bachelor’s Degree basket. If you come form a poor family and want to do better than your parents your only option is to get a B.A. But like a J.D., a B.A. is an all or nothing endeavor. If you excel in college for three years and then a family emergency forces you to drop out, you’re screwed. Good luck getting a job by talking up your three years of coursework. There’s no certificate you get from finishing your junior year that’s worth nearly 3/4 of a college degree. Similarly, the bundle of classes that make up a mechanical engineering degree is worth infinitely more than the bundle of classes that make up a mechanical engineering degree minus the pottery class that fulfills the fine arts requirement. Our current system is a tremendous gamble. You put $100,000 dollars on the line, but if you don’t get to the final step you’re left with nothing.
One reason that the idea of “a la carte” college has the potential to be so transformative is that it will make it easier to unbundle the B.A. into its specific components. Once there’s more focus on the individual classes you take, norms (i.e. the focus of employers) will shift away from the arbitrary bundle of classes we call a Bachelor’s Degree and on to the skills you’ve gained from the classes you’ve taken. In this world the mechanical engineering bundle minus the fine arts requirement will be worth just as much as the full bundle. More importantly, we’ll have an environment where there’s a much higher chance that a low-income student can get a good job after only a year or two of classes. Sure, many students will end up taking a less diverse array of classes, but that’s a sacrifice we should be eager to make if it will lead to a higher education system that actively serves the needs of poor students rather than one that merely serves their needs as a byproduct of serving the needs of the upper middle class.