April 7, 2011

Deciding Tomorrow Today

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I am in the midst of making possibly the most important decision of my life. This is a decision that I knew I would have to make, a decision that has been looming for months. I was fairly confident that I knew the choice I wanted to make but have recently realized that might not be the case. I am trying to chose which law school I will attend next year. I have narrowed it down to two choices. One school that I would ideally like to attend, let’s call it School A, and one school that I am slightly less enthusiastic about but will cost me $70,000 less, let’s call it School B.

I realize that this situation needs a good deal of clarification and more detail to make any sense. I am deciding between two very good law schools, actually ranked one spot away from each other. The school that I wish to attend, School A, is the higher ranked school, though that factor is actually not playing significantly into my decision. School A is also located in my home state and has mildly better connections and job prospects in that state. The distinct and enticing advantage of School B, however, is that it has offered me a significant amount of scholarship money. To be exact, I will be $70,000 less in debt upon graduation if I choose School B over School A.

For those who are economics majors, the inclination to boil down this dilemma to a purely financial question is not unique. There is a definitive amount of money that I will save by choosing School B — $70,000. Assuming I obtain a corporate law job, which is by no means a certainty but still a high probability, there is a fixed amount of extra time it will take me to pay off my loans by attending School A. The obvious uncertainty, however, is how much the extra career opportunities and access to my preferred market at School A translate into potential financial benefit. Furthermore, while $70,000 is a significant amount of money no matter how you slice it, what does that sum really mean over the course of a career?

Though I financed some of my undergraduate education with loans, the concept of debt and its real impact is dawning on me for the first time. There has been no shortage of articles and media coverage discussing the cost of a legal education, and I will soon be six figures in debt. What exactly the crippling effects of this debt are, however, I am unsure. I have heard numerous firsthand accounts of how debt limits your ability to truly follow your passions, one of the main reasons I am attending law school. Furthermore, after working hard in law school and afterwards, I am going to want to spend money and enjoy myself with the limited free time I have, but may not be able to. These are strong considerations drawing me to the scholarship. At the end of the day, however, is a few more years of debt really worth sacrificing unquantifiable opportunity?

What is making this process so difficult is trying to determine what the value of a dollar for me today (more accurately a lot of dollars) will be tomorrow. The next three years, my career plans and my life plans are all far from predetermined. There are a lot of things that could happen which would make this decision more obvious, I just don’t have access to the future. After coming to the realization that the debt will suck no matter what and eventually I should be able to pay it off, I am trying to consider the non-monetary factors more heavily in my decision. Unfortunately, this has not made my conclusion any clearer.

After visiting both schools, I fell in love with neither. School A is actually located in a city and has a distinct city environment. Despite the close proximity to my family and some friends, I am far from thrilled about not having a campus and venturing into a city when I very well may wind up there three years later anyway. School B, on the other hand, is located in a college town significantly far away from my home state. While I am attracted to the collegial nature of the school, it still doesn’t feel completely right being across the country and being implanted into a community with more of a college feel than I experienced at Cornell as an undergrad. I had hoped that visiting both schools would illuminate where I wanted to attend, thus making the financial issue somewhat mute. This did not completely happen, so in a sense, I am back to square one.

This article may seem like a dramatized rant about trying to decide between two law schools, which in a sense it is. The philosophical challenge I am facing, however, is about a much deeper issue and applies well beyond just those who are contemplating attending law school. As college students, most of the decisions we face either have clear instant gratification or objective long-term consequences. If I spend $20 on a Thursday night to go out with friends and try and meet a girl, both the costs and benefits of doing so are clear. Furthermore, we all study hard and try to do well in class to position ourselves for future employment or education; there is no secret there. Many of the issues and choices I am facing as a senior less than two months away from graduation, however, are distinctly unique and ones I do not have answers to.

How am I going to make the choice? I’m not completely sure. The best advice I have received is probably to attend whichever school I think will make the next three years of my life most satisfying and enjoyable, which I actually have a slight idea about. At the end of the day, I can’t know exactly how the career prospects or potential debt differences between the two schools will affect my life, questions my Cornell education has shed little light on. I am hoping that, whichever school I choose, I will have no regrets. I have an uneasy feeling that may be an impossible desire.

Shaun Werbelow is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be contacted at swerbelow@cornellsun.com. Second Opinion appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Shaun Werbelow