I was somewhat taken aback by a column posted by Milwaukee Magazine's Bruce Murphy claiming that I had a "ho hum" attitude toward the cost of higher education and levels of student debt while "making my living" off of students "sinking into ever increasing pits of debt." He offered me as an example of "apathy about this issue among older folks who no longer face the problem." He seemed upset that I chided him for reporting on the subject two years ago, saying that it must have been a slow news day.
I, quite frankly, couldn't recall writing anything that could have been interpreted in that way and the link that Murphy provided to his readers was to a post on this blog referencing a column that I wrote in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision - fairly far removed from the cost of higher education and student debt levels. In fact, the only thing I recall ever writing about student debt levels was an acknowledgment of Joseph Zilber's wonderful $ 30 million dollar gift to Marquette University Law School, $ 25 million of which was to go to student scholarships. I wrote that student indebtedness threatens to distort student's career choices in ways that may not be conducive to their long term happiness. Mr. Zilber's gift, which is very material with respect to a student body of our size, is one of the more significant things ever to grace the Milwaukee legal community.
But after searching my blog, I found the distant insult that apparently has apparently been festering for all this time. I'll link to it because Bruce, apparently couldn't be bothered, preferring that his readers restrict themselves to his interpretation of what I said.
In October of 2007, Mr. Murphy wrote a column declaring college tuition in our state a "scandal" because tuition at Wisconsin's public universities had risen to 4% - or $ 228 - above the national average. He blamed the scandal on declining state support.
I suggested - way back then - that this could hardly be considered a "scandal" and that one might just as well argue that, in a state imposing above average taxes on below average incomes, the real problem was, not the posited weakness of state support, but the level of tuition in light of the tax burden imposed on Wisconsin residents. In other words, a state that imposes above average taxes ought not be offering (slightly) below average support for higher education.
In Murphy's World, this failure to recognize "4 %" as scandal apparently constitutes indifference to the plight of students. It's taking a "ho-hum" attitude toward people with whom I, and not he, interact daily and, for whom, I can't help but to care greatly. I'll admit that this annoys me. They are wonderful young (and, occasionally, not so young) people who tend to make me feel very optimistic about who will be in charge when I am in my dotage.
Even more bizarrely, it's something that must have bothered him so much that he remembers it twenty seven months later - long after I had forgotten the matter.
Mr. Murphy goes on to talk about the debt levels of undergraduates at Marquette and speculates that law school graduates must have even more. On that last point, he is correct. Our tuition is lower - by a lot more than 4% - than the average for private law schools. It is less - by a lot more than 4% - than out of state tuition at the University of Wisconsin Law School. But its still a lot of money. Legal education is expensive. It can be a financially sound investment. In fact, for students that land jobs at large law firms and earn more - a lot more - in their first year than my law school salary, it's a spectacularly good investment. I worked for a firm like that for quite some time and was paid quite well.
But student debt is an issue that requires attention. It's not clear, however, that additional subsidies to higher education help much. Often, it seems that they simply push the demand curve up and mostly increase university revenue. Nor is it clear that the problem with higher education costs is in-state tuition at public universities. At the time - those many months ago when I wrote the offending two sentence that bother Mr. Murphy so much today, I had just finished paying tuition at UWM for my son who had graduated in June 2007. The University of Wisconsin system is still, for the most part, a pretty good bargain.