Law in Contemporary Society

Defaulting Into Education

-- By AlexKonik - 03 Jun 2012

America is captured by a creed that education is your ticket up. Investment in education, no matter the school or area of study, is worth the cost. This creed, combined with easy access to money through education loans, leads many people into graduate degree programs by default. A graduate education can be an excellent decision for many; however, its value is not universally applicable. This fact, often realized too late into one’s career planning, is illustrated by massive student loan debts, a vast number of underemployed Americans, compromised career ambitions, and a growing number of people who cannot repay their loans. Students would be better served by evaluating graduate school enrollment as a significant financial investment to be weighed against long term opportunity costs. Using principles of libertarian paternalism, or nudges, there may be ways to guide students towards more informed decision-making. Ultimately, students would benefit from a more honest evaluation of graduate education's benefits and its direct applicability to their unique situations.

What is a "graduate education"? Are you talking about PhD programs? Masters' degrees for those in professions, like teachers, where pay is directly increased when the degree is granted? MBAs? Law degrees? You are apparently not talking about either associates' programs, or undergraduate college degrees, right?

The Creed – Education is Always a Good Investment

The unquestioned value of education is based in reality, and it is not altogether wrong. On average, higher levels of education are correlated with higher levels of income. Additionally, gaining a specific skill or education may be the best way to break through an income or career ceiling. A medical doctor interested in dermatology, a young woman looking to make partner at Cravath, and a studious literature academic are all well served by their requisite graduate programs. People look to these idyllic examples to justify their own investments. However, the financial surety of these examples does not apply to each student’s particular situation.

So what did this paragraph tell us? Instead of explaining what you're not talking about, we should know by now what you are discussing.

The Creed Does Not Apply To All

Graduate education can quickly become a default choice in a slumping economy, rationalized as a sound investment when for many it actually serves as a credible excuse for delaying entry into the workforce (for an honest introspective see Joshua Divine's essay). These “default students” may benefit by foregoing additional schooling. There are at least two groups for whom a graduate school investment is unsound: one fails to realize any financial benefit from her degree and the other sacrifices life goals in response to financial pressure accompanying the degree. First, assuming financial motives only, some degrees just don’t pay off.

You're going to cite a third-rate financial news website for the accuracy of a statement as broad as this one? Did you do any other research, or did you stop with ""?

Doing the same work without the degree is possible, and the augmented salary does not make up for the opportunity cost of formal education. Second, some students enter graduate school with the intention of pursuing a low-paying field to satisfy non-pecuniary desires. After feeling pressure from the magnitude of loans, they abandon their goals and pursue an unwanted career that can fund their degrees (see Nithin Kumar's piece on burdensome law school debt). Although these degrees have great fiscal returns, it can come at a great personal cost. These default students fall victim to the education creed.

Turning your colleagues' anxieties into data doesn't make much sense. Particularly because there isn't any evidence available, nor will there be any evidence available ever, that paying for a Columbia Law degree is a bad lifetime economic investment. So instead of taking an example which would have given solidity to your proposition (of which there is no shortage available), you've plumped your argument down in the middle of a context where it has no life in it.

Student Loan Debt Matters

Graduate school education is a significant financial investment. Student loan debt in America has surpassed credit card debt in magnitude and now totals over one trillion dollars.

How much of that do you propose is the result of expenditures on post-tertiary education?

This size should not be surprising; government education loans are easily accessed, conditional upon little more than admission to an accredited school. Such easy access to funds allows borrowers to invest without much critical thought in the value of their degree. Specifically, this practice acts as an enabler for students who attend graduate school by default. Degrees that serve neither financial nor social interests are the most concerning in relation to the ballooning educational debt figures. Encouraging consideration of alternatives before investing will encourage default students to identify the risk of their investments and help avoid regrettable results.

Nudging and Setting Defaults

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler introduced the concept of libertarian paternalism to a wide audience with their book Nudge. Applying this concept, there are several way schools and the government may help default students self-identify as an at-risk group. First, an education in basic financial literacy may go a long way alone. Some states already require such a course in high school, and these requirements should be expanded. Second, some graduate schools should place a larger emphasis on post-undergraduate employment in their admissions practices. For example, nearly 80% of Northwestern Law School’s entering class has two or more years of work experience. Among other benefits, this requirement would encourage the default student to explore other opportunities and consider the value of graduate education in context of her life. Additionally, defaulting into employment instead of school would reduce applications motivated by intimidation of the working world. It would encourage more careful consideration of the degree’s value by requiring students to make an active instead of default decision. Third, most school borrowers are funded at least partially through the national government’s Stafford loan program. Today, borrowers are required to sign a promissory note and take an accompanying quiz prior to loan disbursement. I suggest the government add a portion that roughly illustrates the expected financial impact of the individual’s graduate education. With the applicant’s previous level of education, major, prospective graduate program and career, it could show the expected financial value of the degree. Although this information may come too late in the decision process, requiring this level of introspection alone would be beneficial. Some combination of nudges like these may help overcome the power of the education creed.


Graduate education has obvious benefits to individuals and society, and for many legitimate reasons our government has decided to fund it virtually indiscriminately. Given this policy choice, many people are enticed into graduate school who later regret enrolling. In order to control the growing debt and encourage efficient investment decisions, individuals must weigh the value of graduate education in context of their unique situations; the creed should not eclipse individual circumstances. Perhaps schools and the government could play a role by educating students on the value of their investments. In the end, graduate school is a major life commitment that warrants honest consideration and more than assumed approval.

If this essay is about forms of education that do not return their cost to the student, it is not about "graduate education," unless that term has a very idiosyncratic meaning you do not define. Your "evidence," which does not suggest much research effort, is on the "trillion dollar student debt" scale, or else is restricted to comments from law students at Columbia, who—whatever their problems may be—don't face a question about whether a law license is worth the price they are paying for it. The "Nudge" nonsense is just a way of dressing up "someone should tell people how to make good decisions" as though it were social science.

I think the route to improvement here is to decide whether you are writing about people who shouldn't be taking out loans to pay for educations (in which case you are mostly talking about students in vocationally-oriented for-profit education institutions granting associates' or other post-secondary degrees), or about the debt-financing problem in professional education. This latter problem has to do with distortion of the early career choices of the new degree-holder, not with the lifetime economic value of the professional degree. Writing about PhD programs and the economic status of the young scholar requires not an analysis of the role of student debt, but rather an assessment of the future structure of higher education, which is too complex for an analysis at this length even if one can see the possible futures clearly in this area, which pretty much no one can. You can get somewhere cogent if you focus more tightly.

(I remain interested in working on the paper and topic) (1000 words)


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r12 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:45 - IanSullivan
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