David Segal's piece on law school in the NY Times is deservedly getting lots of attention. The moral of his story is that the overproduction of lawyers is reducing salaries to such an extent that recent graduates have a very hard time paying back their student loans. The only ones that don’t struggle are those that win the lottery for the few high paying jobs available.
Kevin Carey thinks this is off; that it is not a lottery but a tournament:
there was nothing random about it… Everyone applying to law school takes the same standardized test. Classes are graded on a curve and class rank is relative to other students who took the same classes. It’s not perfect–nothing is–but law school is about as close to a fully-transparent pure meritocracy as you’ll find in American education.It’s a valid point, but it misses something pretty fundamental about tournaments – the prizes are known in advance.
That is clearly not the case with law school. Many law schools report average salaries of $160k, leading many students to think they have a good shot at getting a job paying $160k after graduating. But they don't. Nor is $160k an accurate figure even for the best schools. As Felix Salmon explains,
Even at Harvard and Yale I’m suspicious of that $160,000 figure; for the non-top-tier colleges, it’s clearly fictional. No matter how many of your graduates go on to $160,000-a-year jobs, there’s always going to be a significant number who earn a lot less than that and there are going to be almost none who earn more. As a result, the mode might be $160,000, but the median will never be that high.How do they report such high numbers? As Segal reports,
“Enron-type accounting standards have become the norm,” says William Henderson… “Every time I look at this data, I feel dirty.”…Top students may get exactly what they expected. But many students just below them could reasonably expect, based on what law schools tell them, that "second place winners" get a prize too, only to discover at the end that there is no prize for second place.
Overall, I view the process of law school itself as a tournament, but going to law school as a lottery. I buy Carey’s argument that entrance and progression through law school can be thought of as a tournament. But Segal’s piece dealt with the end result, not the process leading up to it. And from the student’s perspective, there is a large random element in the end result relative to the reasonably expected result. This difference is primarily determined by the extent to which law school’s lie to their students. A tournament with uncertain winnings for most of the winners is basically a lottery.