Parents Just Don't Understand

I love my parents, I do. But they simply can't comprehend what it's like to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for a graduate degree. Can you blame them? The earliest data I could find on Harvard Law School, which I think is fair to assume to have been one of the most expensive law schools at the time, reveals that tuition in 1983 was only $6,900. That translates to a measly $17,270 today.  In other words, a Harvard Law School student in 1983 paid only 28% of what a Harvard law school student today pays for a year of law school.

As a millennial, I get irritated when I hear parental platitudes like "your education will pay off eventually," "the debt doesn't matter so much," "gotta spend money to make money," or "nothing's free." When people say such things about student loan debt, they often fail to mention that they spent nowhere near what it costs today to go to school. They ignore the impact of interest rates and capitalization. Many think that you can just work a summer job to avoid student debt. Often when I attempt to explain the reality that students face today, the dilemma is blamed on the students for choosing an expensive school in the first place.  On this point, they're not completely wrong. Students do have to share some responsibility for the cost of their education by choosing to go to an expensive school. But in many fields, law school especially, it's often the case that the more expensive the school is for a particular student, the better the chances are of that student obtaining post-graduation employment. 

The legal profession is obsessed with prestige. And with most law schools charging above 30,000 in tuition for a year of instruction, it can be difficult to shop for a bargain. Law schools often throw scholarships at high achieving students to entice them to disregard an admissions offer from a more prestigious school. Thus, the common phrase at many law schools when discussing tuition is "all of us could have gone somewhere for free, but we came here." But that decision often wasn't simply because of prestige, but because of the stark differences in chances of securing lucrative employment after graduation. A median student with a full ride at Michigan is going to have a statistically harder time getting a big law job than a median student at Harvard. Given the brutal curves employed by law schools, it's not unreasonable for a risk averse budding lawyer to choose to bet on safety rather than beating the curve in a highly competitive environment. 

Considerations like where to go to school based on how likely you are to get a job from that school are often overlooked by parents who think that going to any school, especially law school, will lead to gainful and secure employment. And just like old dogs, it's hard to teach old parents new tricks. My advice to students faced with having difficult, annoying, and irritating conversation with their parents about their student debt is to grin and bear it. Take in what your parents have to say, but take it with a grain of salt. You're the only one in a position to evaluate for yourself how much or where you should go to school, and you'll be the only one on the hook for paying it back. If you're applying to law school, don't rush to accept an offer from a school simply because your parents are excited about it or because they encourage you to do so. Spend a lot of time researching the school, its job prospects, its alumni network, its training resources, and its career services office. When you graduate and can keep more of your salary than your classmates who rushed to take out loans, you'll be glad you did. If you're already in law school or graduated, damn, it's too late.