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Zac Hill

Zac Hill

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'Winning' the Higher Education Game

Posted: 05/10/11 03:34 PM ET

"The entire law school industry -- and it is an industry of sorts, representing a significant profit center for universities -- is a giant bubble."

This is a quote from Jonathan Chait over at the New Republic, and it's on my mind as I sit down at Elysian Brewery to share an ESB with my friend Corey, a 2L at Seattle University.

It seems sometimes like everyone I know is in law school. I suppose this should come as no surprise to me. The narrative many of us embraced as bright young humanities graduates involved hearty doses of exceptionalism and weighty expectations of rewarding careers. Law schools promise a lot in the way of both.

It's not too long, though, before the conversation shifts towards a series of subjects that have become increasingly familiar to me as I've talked to more and more people. Skyrocketing debt. Dire employment prospects. The unique kind of existential angst that comes not with your run-of-the-mill wayward, drifting, post-undergraduate sense of purposelessness, but rather with your all-too-active participation in a life-consuming machine you can't escape. I can't help but wonder: How did so many very smart people find themselves trapped inside something they earnestly hate?

Of course, there are the familiar facts. Peter Thiel and Annie Lowrey have popularized the idea that the current higher education situation in America is a "bubble" not dissimilar to the housing crisis of the last several years, with Thiel funding a program called "20 under 20" that pays promising students $100,000 to drop out of college and start a business, and Lowrey applying the idea specifically to law school. Matt Leichter argues convincingly that the number of law school graduates over the next ten years will outpace the number of law-related career opportunities by a factor of five, while Paul Campos reveals that law schools are publishing misleading data about their employment statistics right now. Sam Glover puts it most bluntly: "Most prospective law students would be better off working their way up the ranks at McDonald's. There. I said it."

And there are the familiar explanations. In order to stay competitive in the current market, students have to pursue an education. Many of those students must therefore take out loans, but those loans are doled out without much regard to the likelihood the student will be able to pay it back. And that's unfortunate for the student, because student loans cannot be forgiven through bankruptcy. This often means that instead of pursuing the career for which their degree has prepared them, they're stuck working increasingly-permanent 'temporary' jobs just to pay off the bills.

Of course, not all students have bills. Many are fortunate (as I was, in case it seems like I have too much of an agenda here) to earn merit scholarships. But even those aren't a golden ticket, because many are conditional upon the student's ability to maintain a certain GPA. Sounds fair, right? You just have to be smart enough to earn your money. Well, that's not the whole story: as David Segal explains in the New York Times, most law schools curve their grades, making it mathematically impossible for every student that earns a merit scholarship to keep it.

Perhaps, then, the solution is for more prospective students to heed Aaron Street's (of Lawyerist.com: The Lawyering Survival Guide) advice: "To those prospective law students applying to law schools as a fallback in a bad economy, or because you want three more years to figure out what to do with your life: please save yourself time, money, and a huge amount of stress. Do not apply to law school."

That's also, in essence, what Campos concludes: that prospective lawyers need more information. That the word just needs to spread about the risks inherent in pursuing a law school education, and suddenly more people will listen.

That's noble. And maybe it's true -- after all, prospective law students are generally bright people who might be more inclined, on average, to think reflexively about their own lives and their own decisions.

But I'm a writer, and I'm a game designer, and I frame things in terms of narratives and incentives. So I don't know how much is going to change just by disseminating a bunch of numbers and facts. That's not to say I'm cynical about the possibility of change, though. It's just that to me, the solution's a lot more simple than many of these complex models would have you believe:

If we want our undergraduates to start pursuing the track that's best for them, rather than the track that looks the best, achieving can't be winning.

People like games. People like to win games. People are good -- very, very good -- at winning games. And the current higher education system works very much like a game. It has clearly-defined rules and clearly-defined rewards that set you on a clearly-defined track that allows you to go off and attain those rewards.

There's a problem, though.

Game designers like Jane McGonigal, Jesse Schell, Brenda Brathwaite, and many others have spoken about the idea of 'gamification', the ability to motivate people by erecting game-like structures inside elements of everyday life. This includes everything from employee training programs to personal health management to user-based web development. But this works the other way, too: systems that possess game-like structures motivate people to want to 'win' by reaching a certain end point, even when it's not the goal of the system to drive them there.

Clearly, the goal of the higher education system is not for everyone in America to get a JD or an MD or a Ph.D. in the ethnomusicology of Sumatran gamelan performance (or whatever). But if you looked, from a game design perspective, at how the system is set up, you'd very much think that it is. It's like leveling up in an MMORPG! You invest N hours and N dollars for the opportunity to compete in an arena where your ability to perform lines up closely with an interest curve -- where the degree of challenge presented to you matches up nicely with your ability to overcome it. This makes your successes feel satisfying because the possibility of failure is real, but is not so real as to feel overwhelming. Eventually you "finish the quest" by completing an exacting series of challenges -- the 'end-bosses' of final exams -- and are rewarded with a tangible thing (your degree) as a prize for completing the game.

This has individual consequences, too. If you're a winner for soldiering through to the end of the game, you're also implicitly a failure if you quit too soon.

This, I think, is why so many people view law school as the inevitable next step after graduation -- and this is the fount from which my literary and human interest in the subject springs. "Well, I have a heuristic of myself as a successful person that I need to validate," they say, "so I need to move on up the ladder to get there." They aren't thinking about the goal. They're thinking about the process, and what that process means about them as people.

I was there. I did this. I was lucky my Luce Scholarship allowed me to pursue something else that made me feel exceptional long enough to develop some kind of self awareness about what the need to feel exceptional meant about me as a person, and how to rein that impulse in. I am terrified about where I would be -- the aforementioned desolate career track and the pervasive sense of objectless disinterest, if not the mountains of compounding debt -- had I not more or less stumbled into the opportunity to work in Asia for a year and figure myself out.

For most would-be law-students, they don't have that chance. They are going in cold. That has terrifying implications for those students, and terrifying implications for the society that produced them.

It's easy to 'win' at education. The path is clear, the goals are real, and the end is bright and finite. 'Winning' at real life is a lot muddier -- do you judge yourself by how happy you are? How much money you make? How many people you've met, experiences you've had, things you've created? But it's 'winning' at life that we need to care the most about. A terminal degree that doesn't help you do that is worse than nothing. It's a brick wall of debt, unhappiness and broken possibility.

For some people, of course, a law degree is exactly what they need. It's exactly what's good for them. Those people are winning. For everyone else, it's more than just needing to be told there's a lot more to life than winning a race.

It's that there is no race.

 

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