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COMMON CURRENCY: Post-secondary ed must evolve with the times

Last week I came across an interesting statistic that gives me great optimism and hope for the future: Law school applications have dropped by more than 11 percent this year to the lowest level in more than a decade.

It looks like the word is finally getting out. Not even lawyers can make it in this economy. The economic model for law firms and the education and training of young lawyers has for decades been a very reliable path to wealth and prosperity.

Now the walls are tumbling down.

It worked something like this: A well respected and prestigious law firm hires several dozen of the very best and brightest law graduates it can find and pays them a handsome sum to do endless hours of mind numbing legal research to generate voluminous reports, theories, case interpretations, scientific data and expert opinions, but mostly routine documents, to inexorably grind away at the opposing firms' army of young "associates" doing the exact same work but for the other side.

Prestigious law firms needed a large number of bright, young lawyers working on their cases. Sorting them out for promotion was easy. All you had to do was work them all 100 hours a week and see who survived.

Legal research was tedious and time consuming work, but so much the better for racking up those billable hours. As the economy grew, law firms needed more talent to do more research to generate more billable hours for the firm. And law schools were happy to oblige, churning out ever-greater numbers of eager young graduates, for which students paid ever-inflated tuition and fees.

It was a great system for the law schools and law firms. You could make a lot of money either way. But it was not so much for everyone else, especially for the client who paid the bill and the student trying to cash in on a law career. Today, a three-year law degree at a major university can easily cost $200,000 or more.

The problem is the world has changed, and only a handful of the thousands of law school graduates every year will ever come close to actually making enough money practicing law to justify the enormous cost of their education.

The economic model that made law professors celebrities and a small number of prestigious law firms very wealthy has collapsed. And I think the world will be better for it.

Today, a research project that just a few years ago would have kept a room full of young lawyers busy for days can be performed in minutes by a sophisticated search engine software program. Routine documents can be drafted in seconds. Clients and law students both are in open revolt. Clients of law firms are demanding a different model for legal services, as the output-per-hour model of "billable hours" is today an anachronism.

My personal opinion is that a lawyer who charges by the hour has a conflict of interest with his own client, and a client who thinks this is okay should have his head examined.

Law students are also demanding answers, as the promise of a law degree as a path to prosperity now looks more like a path to financial ruin, and in the ultimate of ironies, student loan debt can not be discharged in personal bankruptcy.

This phenomenon is by no means unique to law schools. It is happening across the country in colleges and degree programs of every kind. I am a believer in the inherent value of a classic liberal education, and the bounty and richness it can add to a person's life. But the pure economic value of a four- year private education in political science at $40,000 a year or more is debatable. A few decades ago a four-year college degree was a guaranteed path to middle class prosperity. Today, it is less clear. It may even be morally questionable, if not outright criminal to trap young people in an obsolete system of education that burdens them with tens of thousands of dollars in debt they may have no hope of ever repaying.

The delivery of education, like everything else these days, is available on demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week by anyone who wants to log on and tune in.

Like most products in the market place, some are very good and some are low in quality. But this is also why I hope the M State programs being offered here in Park Rapids take hold.

As Lou Schultz wrote in his column last week, Park Rapids missed an opportunity in 1966 to have a junior college located here. Today, the opportunity is even greater, not just to have M State programs here, but to have a state-of-the art portal through M State to get connected to the entire world of online education.

And more than ever, as Lou writes, "The days are long gone when we "finish" our education."

Alan J. Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.genera tion