Wages for American workers have been stagnant for more than 20 years; everyone knows that. In fact, many American workers have seen a decline in their real wages as inflation eats away at their paychecks.
A college degree supposedly enhances earnings, but not for everyone More than a third of college-educated workers are holding jobs that do not require a college degree.
As we drift into middle age, we search for ways to make more money. So why not go to graduate school? Maybe job opportunities will open up if we get an MBA. Or maybe we can unleash our creative capacity if we obain a master's degree in creative writing. Why not go to law school?
Of course, American colleges want people to think that going to graduate school is good career option. Undergraduate enrollments are declining at many universities--especially the second-tier liberal arts schools. The colleges have got to keep the money flowing, and many have been rolling out new graduate programs to enhance their revenues. Juicing up MBA programs has been a favorite strategy.
Graduate programs can be expensive, and most people who pursue graduate degrees have to take out student loans to finance their studies. But, hey--what could go wrong?
At least three things:
Age discrimination. Although federal laws protect people from age discrimination in the workplace, many employers discriminate against older workers. So if you are 45 years old and recently obtained a law degree or an MBA, you will be competing against much younger workers.
Law firms in particular are looking for bright young attorneys who have the drive and energy to work 80 hours a week. The firms like to mold their new hires into the firm's corporate culture, and it is easier to mold a 25-year old than a 45-year old. And the firms definitely discriminate in favor of people who graduated from top-ranked law schools.
So if you graduated from a second- or third-tier law school at age 45, the chances of landing a high-paying job at a blue-chip law firm are virtually zero. And if you borrowed $140,000 to get your law degree (the average amount of debt for new law graduates), you are in real trouble. In fact, your decision to borrow money to go to law school was probably a mistake.
Many graduate programs don't give students useful skills. Second, a lot of graduate programs do not teach skills that will enhance their students' marketability in the workplace. The United States now has hundreds of MBA programs, but I have talked with people who got MBA degrees from non-elite colleges, and several told me they didn't learn much.
I myself was a sucker. I enrolled in the doctoral program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, thinking a doctorate from Harvard would open doors for me that I couldn't open with just my law degree. In fact, I learned virtually nothing useful during my two years of study at Harvard other than the fact that HGSE is a pretty mediocre place.
Unsympathetic bankruptcy courts. Several recent bankruptcy court decisions have involved middle-aged people who accumulated a lot of debt going to graduate school. Some of these people argued that their advanced age should be considered--that they simply didn't have enough working years left to pay off their enormous student-loan debt.
But not all bankruptcy courts are sympathetic. In Conner v. U.S. Department of Education, for example, Patricia Monet Conner accumulated $214,000 in student-loan debt to pay for graduate education in three fields: business administration, communications, and education.
Conner was a school teacher who had an annual income of about $60,000 during the years before she filed bankruptcy, and she never made a single voluntary payment on her student loans. When she came before the bankruptcy court, Conner was 61 years old, and she argued that her advanced age should be considered in her favor.
But the bankruptcy court rejected Conner's argument and refused to discharge her student-loan debt.. Conner appealed, and a federal district court, was equally unsympathetic."[C]ourts have regularly held that one's age cannot form the bases of a favorable finding for a debtor who chooses to pursue an education later in life," the court ruled.
Conclusion: Middle-aged people should be very cautious about going to graduate school. Many Americans enter middle age not having achieved the goals they set for themselves when they were young. I myself am such a person. Going to graduate school may seem like a way to expand life opportunities--a second chance to obtain success.
But be very cautious. Gamblers who lose at the gaming tables often double down, hoping a big win will nullify their earlier losses. But unlucky gamblers who keep betting generally wind up losing more money. Universities, like the casinos, want you to think the odds are in your favor; but in fact they are not.
I do not give this advice out of a sense of superiority. As I said, I made a big mistake going to Harvard in midlife only to find that some of my professors were not as smart as I am. I wound up with a mediocre education and a lot of debt.
Conner v. U.S. States Department of Education, Case No. 15-1-541, 2016 WL 1178264 (E.D. Mich. March 28, 2016).