September 26, 2005

"Were admission to [professional] schools based on a prediction of the social value of the education offered, fewer women would be admitted."

Judge Posner blogs about that NYT article "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood" (which we talked about a lot here last week). Posner:
The principal effect of professional education of women who are not going to have full working careers is to reduce the contribution of professional schools to the output of professional services. Not that the professional education the women who drop out of the workforce receive is worthless; if it were, such women would not enroll. Whether the benefit these women derive consists of satisfying their intellectual curiosity, reducing marital search costs, obtaining an expected income from part-time work, or obtaining a hedge against divorce or other economic misfortune, it will be on average a smaller benefit than the person (usually a man) whose place she took who would have a full working career would obtain from the same education.
Read the whole thing before getting completely steamed at Posner. He's got an elaborate incentive scheme that avoids sex discrimination. The words "raise tuition" jumped out at me.

UPDATE: I think there is strong pressure on law schools to maintain an even balance of male and female students. It is because of this, not worries about full-time motherhood, that new preferences for males are likely to creep into the process.


Steve Donohue said...

Once again, it seems to boin down to the question of liberal education vs. trade school. Posner's assertion is probably true to the degree that colleges have devolved into trade schools that shy away from giving a broad-based, liberal education based upon improvement of the self. Whether such a system ever existed is open to debate, but I can attest that I'm surely not getting it here in Champaign.

If the primary reason for college is self-improvement, than there is nothing lost by women removing themselves from the workforce. But if colleges are really just trade schools, the positions occupied by people who leave the workforce (female or male) may be better filled elsewhere.

leeontheroad said...

But Steven, professional schools by definition do not offer a broad-based education. That's not what they're for. And even undergraduate degree-granting, professional schools tend to include minimal requirments in the humanities. (And believe me, students try to get around those!)

Judge Posner's argument is largely about post-baccalaureate institutions.

leeontheroad said...

I should say his argument primarily applies to those. I see a bit of confusion of terms between "elite" (say, a Harvard undergrad) and "professional" (where he clearly defines post-baccalaurate programs in law and medicine and such).

He hasn't, for example, looked at the number of women in med school still working and the social value of that-- as compared to the number of Harvard women alumni, overall.

I think there continues to be a huge problem in equating "social value" with the traditional ways we calculate GDP.

John said...

Not being a woman - or a graduate from an elite professional school - I am not so much 'steamed' by his seamingly, chauvinistic attitude as I am by his cold and clinical analysis of men and women, families and children.

It appears to me that he places a disproportionate amount of emphasis on how much one makes as an indicator of 'social value'.

Lastly, given his clinical analysis and focus on money, it appears that the primary goal of an elite, professional school is to create alumni that can deliver the cash back to the school. I feel better knowing that society is getting this 'value'.

Steve Donohue said...

I took the argument to mean any post-graduate studies or studies at prestigious universities. I agree that medical school or law school shouldn't be a broad-based liberal training, nor thought of as one. But I don't think Posner's argument encompasses just that. Is going after a history doctorate or English doctorate qualify as professional? Probably not. And how about, like you mentioned, undergraduate studies at, say, Harvard or Princeton? These are definitely not professional studies alone, but I think Posner intends his argument to extend to these as well.

I think his argument holds true to whatever degree these institutions fail in their capacity to offer a liberal education and relegate themselves to the position of trade schools.

leeontheroad said...

I'm all for broad-based liberal education, but it's also the case that the public writ large is most upset about and least in agreement about the definition of "liberal arts."

When attendance at a public institution is easily $60K per degree, folks are looking for a return on their individual investment, to be sure. And undergraduate degrees in English are not producing such return in the market, which is why there's been a huge upsurge in intended majors in "Business" and a glut of folks with BA's in Computer Science (should have taken that Physics course, folks.)

Posner is right in line with the view that somehow higher education should produce such return.

And to that extent, Steven, your idea of "self-improvmet" (I think a late 20th c. version of the Victorian argument of the inherent value of education) is in fact directly contrary to Posner's. I'm with you on this one.

Still, I would look at the way we measure "productivity" before we conclude that educating women may not be worth it. (I agree with you there, "j.")

Harvard is, after all, a private institution whose endowment allows them to educate folks without much expenditure of public dollars. (Mind you, their financial aid-blind admissions mean in part students may still access fed fin aid dollars.)

If applied to public institutions (where women also outnumber men, at the undergraduate level-- as women do in the population), Posner's arguemnt could be extended to questions about subsidies for public institutions.

What always amazes me about academics making arguments about overall admissions is the idea that there are some large number of otherwise qualified applicants just sitting out there. For a seat at Harvard and other Ivies and elites, there might well be. But those students do get admitted elsewhere: everyone wants top students.

By the way, so-called "assortive mating" used to happen; it's what debutantes were for.

Bruce Hayden said...

I am not surprised that Posner's suggestions make some livid. But he does ask some very good questions, starting with what is the purpose of a professional college, like a law school or a medical school?

If you start with the hypothesis that the purpose of these institutions is to train professionals for work in society, then I think his questions naturally follow. After all, while that woman with the Yale JD may be benefitting her (typically two) kids, how is this benefitting society? Esp. compared with the work that somone who stayed in the work force would contribute?

On the other hand, if the purpose of professional postgraduate education is personal growth, then I would think that these schools would want to rethink their admission policies.

Ann, you indicated that you were livid here, but I have really only heard his side of the argument. What is yours - or that of other women in your position?

Jillene said...

Would there be a concern if the role was reversed, if it was found that many men didn't enter and stay in the workforce after graduation from a prestigious university?
What would the professional school dynamic be if qualities such as common sense, ability to multi-task, ability to carry on a conversation with collegeaues (and spell), desire to participate in professional organizations and help advance the professional were taken into consideration at admission? This place would be much more enjoyable if the admissions committee had taken these things into consideration. If only we could institute a "test" that would quantify these qualities. I think bad professionals (one's who only practice for money) is a much larger problem than if all women don't practice to their full potential.

Bruce Hayden said...


I do think that Posner is right though about assortive mating now taking place in college, in graduate school, and in the work environment. The problem with debutants is that that happens much too early any more. And the women who go to Finishing Schools are at a disadvantage to women who attend class with the men - hence (IMHO), the demise of most of these schools.

I have often told my daughter that if she wanted to marry a doctor, the best place to meet him would be in medical school, and the best place to meet a lawyer is in law school.

(But while Posner seems to agree with me there, he questions the relative social utility of that).

Bruce Hayden said...


You seem to be suggesting that men are more mercenary than women in their work, but really don't back that up. I would suggest the possibility of just the opposite - that since men identify themselves more with their professions than women tend to, that they would tend to be better in this respect. Obviously, I have no more facts than you do, and am only throwing this out as a counter-hypothesis.

Multitasking might be advantageous in some aspects of the law, but arguably is counter productive in others, such as mine, patent law, primarily because concentration level and ability to multitask seem to be negatively correlated. When you are writing a patent application, it is advantageous to NOT get distracted by anything else.

As for spelling, since I am one of the primary offenders here, I will suggest that while this may have been important in a previous age, it isn't any more, given how good spell checkers are. I don't usually spell check here because such a tool is not readily available. When it is, I use it.
That said, I should note that it is likely that the type of standardized tests that are used for admission to most schools these days do not test either multitasking or common sense, and, indeed, the former may almost be a disadvantage when taking such tests, as the person who can concentrate more would seem more likely to excel.

Bruce Hayden said...


The problem with law schools is that their position in the hierarchy is hotly contested. Even mid tier schools are turning away potential students who could do the work and be competitive. Taking into account an applicant's potential benefit to society as posited by Posner would most likely shift students throughout the range of all law schools.

I frankly don't know if medical school is comparable. There, a doc's residency seems more important than where he went to medical school - but the better residencies are as competitive, if not more so, than getting into the top big firms after law school. I have one friend who rejects almost 100 docs for every one he accepts in his residency program. The problem he faces is that they can't look at each applicant in detail, given the numbers involved, and by necessity look to such metrics as medical school and graduation rank when doing the initial cut (from 100-1 to 10-1).

Paul said...

I am reminded of Judge Roberts joke about whether or not having more lawyers and less homemakers really contributes to the common good.

Jillene said...

I have no ill-will towards men and frankly, don't think they are important in this arguement. I was merely questioning whether it would be two sided.
I am not in law and know little about it or the rigors that it's students may endure. I can only imagine that are as difficult as mine.
Common sense being an important issue, a passion for the profession and its advancement is equally important. It is obvious that many of us here have that passion because we have branched out, but many are lacking. In my profession women are starting to run the show because there is a high proportion of us. Will that be affected by some of us working part-time or not at all? Inevitably. However, we have all worked very hard to get to our respective positions and giving that up will be difficult.
Advancement will just take more time and manpower to conquer.

leeontheroad said...

Bruce, Posner uses "assortive mating' to refer to socio-economic status, not whatever attributes of "intelligence" are contained in one's chromosomes.

Before expansion of educational opportunites for all sorts of non-traditoonal folks, there were so few ways a workign class woman would marry a wealthy an G. B. Shaw wrote a play about it.

I like folsk wading into the fray about what higher education should be doing. But Posner's contribution assumes "social value" is purely based in economic output measured by individual income. He also would base higher education policy not on assessment of future need, but, instead, past performance. This would reinforce traditional gender and parenting roles, which harms some number of parents, male and female. My brother, for example, is a single, full-time Dad-- who also works full-time. The expectation he should earn x working 80 hours to do so is making the man old before his time. This is good for him, his child, and society? I think not.

peter hoh said...

Posner's proposal has some merits. I like the rebate idea -- that tuition goes up, but those who work full-time (thus making the most of their degrees) get some kind of rebate.

Many churches face problems similar to this -- they are getting fewer years out of their seminary graduates, thus calling into question the degree to which they wish to subsidize their seminaries. In recent years, people have been entering seminary later in life. I also suspect that current graduates leave the ministry for some other line of work at a rate higher than in the past.

I'm also interested in the issue of gender balance. While an elite graduate program can probably maintain a 50/50 split, I suspect that second and third tier programs would be hard-pressed to maintain gender balance in light of the unbalanced makeup of undergraduate education.

Again, the elite schools probably have an easier time of this, so the NYT is not likely to notice, but I've heard that 55/45 is getting to be the norm in some liberal arts colleges. That's 55% female, 45% male. And I've heard whispers that "balance" is only maintained because standards are lower for male applicants.

PatCA said...

In the '60s, students complained that liberal education prepared them for nothing in the real world, so colleges responded by becoming more trade-schoolish. Now the tide is turning back towards the benefits (highly debatable) of a liberal arts education, at least for undergrads.

A professional school, though, as someone else said, mainly does prepare students for employment. That being said, when life spans have increased to the point where one's working life is 40 years, do we know yet the social impact of recent women professionals dropping out of the work force? Income is not an accurate measurement of that: A part-time pro bono advocate could conceivably have much of a societal impact than a full time PI attorney.

I think Posner is more concerned about the value to the institution (alumni donors) that social value.

Wade_Garrett said...

J pfeiffer - In the legal profession, Judge Posner is famous, if not world famous, for applying exactly that sort of cold, bloodless analysis to the cases that come before him on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

A lot of people -- at least in my law school classes -- have a problem with that method of analysis. I don't see it as wrong-headed, just not necessarily the means I would use to decide a case. Also, there is often a lot of debate about how he defines economic efficiency and so forth.

Crank said...

I'm with paul's citation to John Roberts, above:

1. Law schools attract way more people than the number of lawyers who are needed to contribute to the common good. This is for a number of reasons, familiar to anyone who has spent time with law students or recent law school graduates - people go to law school for the prestige or not having a better idea of what to do, and they wind up getting tracked into the profession by a combination of debt, non-monetary sunk costs, and peer pressure.

2. A surplus of lawyers is a bad thing, particularly because unlike other businesses, lawyers have a number of ways to enlist the coercive machinery of government to enable them to make a living without their being much in the way of independent demand for their services. In particular, the number of lawyers is a primary driver of the number of lawsuits, especially class action and/or contingency fee lawsuits where no client needs to be persuaded to pay money up front for the lawyer's services.

3. How to fix the imbalance between an excess supply of lawyers and the market's relative inability to discourage prospective law students from entering an overcrowded field? Fortunately, a solution is at hand: if some number of spots in law schools are being taken by women who will have short or part-time legal careers, instead of men who will practice full time, the surplus is partly corrected.

leeontheroad said...

The idea of a 50/50 split is social engineering, if that doesn't represent the population. In 1990, only 48% of the US population was male. But in 2000, the census data suggests a more even split, overall. Still, to determine whether men or women are under-represented ("fair," by the numbers), one needs to know:

* what is the balance for the traditional-(college)age population in the nation or the region
* what is the balance for high school graduates (as we still require *that*)
* what is the balance for applicants to an institution

One can readily decide that one wishes a 50/50 male-female split; and that seems like a fine idea to me, on the face of it. But if the applicant pool is skewed, so might be one's admissions (exempting single gender institutions, of course).

And there is another path that remains skewed to male high school graduates-- the military. Young men who choose to enter active service or military academies are "siphoned" off from other institutions. I don't have reason to beleive this is a major factor in national college attendance, however.

What seems to be a factor, overall, in institutions of higher education is that a growing Hispanic/Latino population is producing more college-bound women than men. if that doesn't change, it's going to be a significant factor in gender balance, as the overall percentage of (18-25) population for this group expands.

gs said...

Posner's suggestion is vulnerable to unintended consequences. It could be an incentivizing step toward a European-style birth dearth. Afaic smart responsible people should be encouraged to parent, not the contrary. Does Posner's implicit social utility function contain a penalty for extinction?

Rather than treat stay-at-home parenting by the best and brightest as a problem, professional schools could perceive it as an opportunity. Continuing education, continuing accreditation, networking...all could be designed to prepare for the empty-nest years.

Another possibility is to give long-term certificates of acceptance into professional school, perhaps with an annual fee and a refresher session the summer before school starts.

Isaac said...

Ann is right that the push to maintain gender balance probably favors men: women are much better students than men, thus it is easier to get into say, a liberal arts college, as a man than as a woman (at Swarthmore, about 20 percent of female applicants are admitted and 30 percent of male applicants). I wouldn't be surprised if this holds, or will soon hold, at law schools.

Kathy Herrmann said...

Comment 1...

One question no one has yet asked is how many people of either sex, who are years past their graduation, are working in the field in which they received their degree?

Given the life span of people today, personal growth we all go through, and also the uncertainty in the work environment, I doubt anyone can uneqivically predict what they will be doing for work 20 years from now. And the younger the worker, the more likely I think that to be (in other words, the older the worker, the less likely I think it is the worker will switch professions).

Kathy Herrmann said...

Comment 2...

I don't really see the issue with graduates who elect to drop out of their degreed profession for any reason. If someone wants to go through the cost (social and economic) of an expensive education and they qualify for enrollment and they have the means to pay for it, then what, really, is the issue?

My undergrad degree was a BS Geophysics. I worked in the oil business for 12 years with 10+ as an exploration geophysicist. Today I'm in marketing far from the oil patch.

Did I waste my geophysics education? No. First, I received an extensive science and math education (and I use at least the latter all the time). Second, I learned how to analyze in an interpretive science (that is, geology has lots of grays) and use the skill all the time in my other work. And that's just a few of the benefits.

Education is never wasted, although sometimes its economic value might not warrent its cost. To me, that's the only real issue.

Maybe I'm just a practical realist myself. If I know going in that I don't plan to use my expensive education, then I wouldn't spend the money on it and incur the debt. I'd find other, less expensive alternatives. But that's me.

Bruce Hayden said...

I stand corrected on assortive mating - though my definition was not that far off. I was really talking more a stratification mating, or proximity mating, than assortive. This is what comes from trying to understand terms from context versus actually looking them up. Sorry.

Though, it probably doesn't make that much difference here. If admissions policies are changed to admit, for example, more men at the top schools, their average IQ may be a little less, but not that much, so, those marrying those that they meet in school are going to still probably be within range of assortive mating.

magemom said...

This comment at Posner's blog says it best:

A broader point here is that the professional world has become, in many ways, anti-family. Lawyers and doctors, especially, are expected to work absurd hours and are paid, in return, absurd amounts of money. But this leaves many of them unsatisfied on a personal level. It also destroys marriages and creates entire generations of kids raised by nannies. I am not surprised that many bright, successful people are not satisfied with this life. Perhaps the professions need to reform themselves to become more accommodating to families. After all, families are the backbone of our society. Rather than lash out at women (or men) who take time off to raise their kids, academics -- feminists and otherwise -- should take a long, hard look at what the legal profession has become.

And we're not just talking about soft costs, but also the real, tangible economic effects of broken families on society as a whole: substance abuse, domestic abuse, court costs and incarceration, etc.

Besides all that, isn't there a basic conflict of interest in schools demanding that unemployed grads pay them? i.e. the fewer students that find jobs after graduation, the more money the school gets?

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