Upside to recession: shift toward higher education good for U.S.

It is not secret among my friends that I want to go to law school. I have been compulsively driven towards this goal for years now, and it has led me to do many horrible things. I spend free weekends wearing hosiery and uncomfortable pumps while pretending to put on a trial. I cruise legal blogs like abovethelaw.com for hours when I should be doing diligent things like sleeping, or establishing human relationships.

Terrifyingly, this sort of passive preparation for law school no longer is enough. As I slowly creep towards escape from Tech, I have had to start actively planning for law school. The first step: register for the LSAT.

Like any diligent Tech student, I live in a constant state of fear about my GPA, so a good LSAT score is something I will be banking on as I apply to law schools. I have signed up to take a Kaplan class, and this weekend I logged on, three months in advance of the end-of-registration date, to sign up for the test itself.

No luck, I was waitlisted. I first typed in my zip code, then the zip code at Tech, then the zip code of a friend of mine at Emory, all to no avail. Every single Atlanta testing location was full. It seems that the economy has finally caught up to me, and it is going to be chasing me all the way down to Macon to take the LSAT.

Increased enrollment in post-graduate education is one of the assumed effects of a recession. There were well-documented increases in M.B.A., J.D. and Ph.D. program enrollment during the dot-com bust. Over the past few years, many programs then saw stagnation in their enrollment, which has now been shattered by the rising application statistics for the 2009-2010 academic year.

Personally, I am not thrilled. The thought of thousands of well-qualified applicants leaving the job market to come take one of my coveted law school acceptance letters makes me sick to the stomach. However, once the rage and feelings of inadequacy subside, I can’t help but think that maybe this renewed focus on education is a good thing.

Recent statistics show that within the U.S., the number of “domestic” Ph.D. candidates is now slightly less than the number of non-citizens pursuing graduate degrees. Combine this with the increasing number of docorate degrees awarded outside the U.S., and it becomes clear that our perceived advantage in technology, science, and even the social sciences and humanities is in jeopardy.

I am sure one could argue if a few hundred more attorneys per year is useful, an increase in Ph.D. candidates and doctors will increase our technological competitiveness as a country while stalling our inevitable old-personization (if you are confused by that, just look into Spain’s demographics over the past few years and think about baby-boomers).

The quest for post-graduate degrees is being mimicked by a move to more “secure” fields, with increases in enrollment in nursing and education degrees at the undergraduate level. Sure, the majority of people questing after teaching positions and law degrees are not doing it because they have an obsessive love for the field. I doubt they are doing it for the “love of learning” either, but are instead simply looking for those mythical “recession-proof” jobs.

There is a reason those jobs are “recession-proof” though, and that reason is exactly why the shift in educational trends towards those fields is part of the silver lining to this whole economic spiral. As interesting and self-fulfilling as it might be to pursue a degree in fantasy literature and criticism, that educational skill set doesn’t really lend itself to societal benefit, whereas our economy desperately needs more nurses, educators and highly trained professionals.

The shift toward higher education is a benefit of recession. The increased enrollment will generate more competitive students who were educated in a time when a college degree did not guarantee a job. Should employers ever start hiring again, they will have access to a better educated and more realistic applicant pool than was available before.