Do schools have an obligation to make sure there’s a job market?

I was intrigued by a recent Inside Higher Ed article discussing a Boston College law student with an unusual proposal.

An anonymous Boston College law student has published an open letter asking his dean to let him leave the law school without a diploma this semester (two and a half years into the program) in return for getting his tuition money back. The student writes that he was convinced to go to law school by “empty promises of a fulfilling and remunerative career,” and that now he faces the likely prospect of huge debts and no decent job.

My initial reaction was to think that it’s really the student’s responsibility to check out the job market and understand whether the cost of the education is justified given the education received (which surely has at least some value by itself) and the vocational prospects.

But, as I reflected just  bit further, I started to see it rather differently. I’m not sure how many people graduate every year with their PhDs in Bible or theology, but I do know that they far outstrip the number of teaching positions that are available to them. (That may change in the future with the impending retirements of a large percentage of Bible/theology faculty and the long hoped for economic recovery; but those changes may also be outweighed by technological advances and the changing economic models for many schools.) That means that there are quite a few doctoral programs out there who know full well that the job market cannot sustain the number of graduates that they’re producing. Yet, those same doctoral programs don’t seem to be reducing the number of applicants they accept as a result. Instead, these doctoral programs continue and new ones crop up with some regularity.

What do you think? Do schools have any obligation to adjust their admissions practices based on the likelihood that their graduates will find a job? Or, do they at least have an obligation to make the reality of the job market clear to prospects and/or make job-placement data publicly available? Or, is the responsibility entirely on the student?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on October 22, 2010, in Academics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Would adjusting admission practices by the schools mean reducing the amount of income the school would receive from incoming students? And if so, would that entail staff reductions in the respective departments, e.g. “If we admit 5 less students into the program, that means we have to let one professor go because funding is not available.”?

    It is probably a case where the market is what is deciding the ethic of the situation for grad schools, i.e. “If kids keep applying, then why should we turn them down. They are adults and can make informed decisions on their own. Everyone for himself, and all that.” On one level, that is surely a failure on the part of the respective departments, especially those in humanities (who tend to grouse against libertarian/market ethics). If they feel a responsibility to “produce” a student who can perform academic tasks (read, teach, research) at an excellent level, shouldn’t they feel the responsibility not to flood the academy with people who won’t be able to do those things once they are out, e.g. “here are your wings! Sorry, no flying allowed.”

    I had a 4.0 in my major in undergrad and the head of the department really wanted me to go to grad school. But the professors I trusted steered me away from it because of the difficulty of getting a good job. That was almost 20 years ago. Things are still basically the same. I was told by Jeff Jue, who teaches Church History at Westminster, that the best way to get a job is to know someone and work the connections, because there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people trying to get the same job who are just as smart and qualified as you.
    Maybe it has always been like that…

  2. Picking a trade, vocation, or career is a serious decision, that most people (I hope) make with due consideration that they will be spending much of their lives, or perhaps the rest of their lives performing. While educational institutions often offer assistance with this process during or after schooling, ultimately it is up to the prospective worker to pick the vocation the at least wish to enter. We all know that due to the vagarities of economy and a whole myriad of other factors far beyond any individual’s control such intentions may never get fulfilled. Holding educational institutions financially accountable for the quality of the service they provide is conceivable. Holding them financially accountable for anticipating that any individual student’s educational and/or career choices may turn out poorly as a result of job market changes seems entirely unrealistic.

    I can say with full assurance that this student is not the only one to regret his educational decisions. But how is that different from any other important decision one makes through life? Should soldiers be allowed to hold the US Army responsible because they were sent to combat zones, when at the point of enlistment there were no signs on the political horizons that the US would enter into not 1, but 2 conflicts simultaneously? A lot of kids enlist for college money, I certainly did. Prior to 2001 the liklihood of any of those actually having to serve anywhere the wrong end of a bullet was slim. I think the answer is an obvious “NO”.

    The fact is that even if the school could have anticipated that by the time of graduation the student’s career choice would not be a good one (which is in itself unlikely), the student has actually received the product he paid for. He cannot return those 2.5 years of education to the school. He cannot retroactively reduce the workload of the professors who gave him tests, corrected his homework, counseled him on his choice of classes, etc. For better or worse, he has “uploaded” into hi brain 2.5 years of pre-law/law. The school has no way to keep tat student from making use of their product which he purchased with his tuition. Withholding the diploma only prevents him from using them in a specific setting. Who can measure the value of the changes in outlook, critical thinking, and the like that accompanied those years of education.

    If we were to require schools to advise their students that “hey this wll not work out well in 4 years since there is a drop in hiring now, or a glut in the legal system”, How would one set standards for that kind of prediction? TO what degree of reliabilty should we hold them? 100% accuracy? 90% accuracy?

    I submit that the student perhaps made a bad choice vocationally, but to hold the school financially liable denies his responsibility, and will ultimately prove untenable in the long term, as it will set a precedent for an student who regrets their vocational decisions to attempt to get their money back.

    Um, ok, I guess this hit my buttons a bit. I am now stepping off my soapbox. 🙂

  3. Pat, changes in admission would have to affect staffing in some way. School’s would either need to eliminate some positions (probably through attrition rather than firing) or reallocate staff to other areas.

    And, I think you’re definitely right that this is not a new situation. Schools have known for decades that they were producing more PhDs than necessary. To some extent, that’s what has made the current job market so difficult. It was an over-saturated market when times were good, so the economic downturn has only exacerbated an already difficult situation.

  4. Tim, you seem to be envisioning a situation in which schools are entirely passive in this process. Would it change your perspective any if you accounted for the fact that most schools spend considerable money marketing their programs and recruiting new students? And, many schools are actively seeking to grow their programs (either by expanding existing degree programs or by adding new degree programs) with apparent disregard for the actual job market.

    Now, none of this absolves students from responsibility. I completely agree with you there and I would not be in favor of a school refunding money like this student wants.

  5. I wonder if it would change our perspective any if we were talking about the MDiv instead of the PhD. I haven’t seen recent placement numbers for the MDiv, but I understand that the pastoral job market has been pretty difficult the last couple of years. For the sake of the argument, let’s suppose that evangelical schools in America are producing 25% more MDiv graduates than are necessary for the number of available pastorates. At the same time, most evangelical seminaries are actively trying to grow their MDiv programs through aggressive recruiting/marketing. Is this a legitimate expression of market forces at work, or should seminaries be more sensitive to the current needs of its students and of the church in preparing future ministers?

  6. I haven’t read the above comments. But maybe even if these schools don’t change admission levels for the PhD, at least they could be very up front about expectations relative to future employment for their incoming students.

    I’ve wanted to get a PhD for years, and finally it is coming to pass (in a very surprising way — getting to study with someone I highly respect); but one of the reasons I hadn’t taken the plunge in the past is certainly financial concerns and then maybe not lack of jobs (although it’s always been competitive), but the fact that the “debt” accrued earning the PhD would not be proportionate to future pay as a prof at an Evangelical institution to justify earning said degree (although the program I’ve found now makes sense, it is financially viable).

    Anyway, I’m not sure that I think the schools have a responsibility to adjust their admission rates — because there are really too many variables relative to the job market in order for them to come up with any kind of viable criteria to know how many students to admit or not. In other words, even in a bad “job market” there are still jobs, and PhD’s are typically good for a lifetime 😉 . Maybe a post won’t open immediately, but when the time is right, it well (I say to self 😉 ).

  7. As I am constantly tempted to remind my students. “It’s ADULT education folks!” They need to do the math, just like institutions do before they refuse anyone.

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