Caleb Haydon, 23, St. Louis

Wednesday, July 4, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Law school, like so many graduate programs, was considered a "golden ticket" to a well-paying career not so many years ago. Even in 2009, when St. Louis resident Caleb Haydon, 23, enrolled at Saint Louis University's law school, he assumed that was the case.

Now in his final year, Haydon has internships lined up with quality law firms. He says that typically meant a job offer was coming, but there are no guarantees anymore. He has some debt, but it's not crippling — at least not if he lands a good job.

But Haydon knows classmates at SLU law school who have upwards of $150,000 in debt. More than 80 percent of SLU’s graduates in 2011 had debt, and the average student debt was $120,000. More alarming, there are more than two dozen schools ahead of SLU Law for both average debt and percentage of students in debt.

Law school students have long incurred hefty chunks of debts, but lawyers typically make hefty chunks of money, too. So law school debt in and of itself isn't alarming. But if you consider, as The New York Times did a year ago, that, "Since 2008, some 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished, according to a Northwestern Law study. Associates have been laid off, partners nudged out the door and recruitment programs have been scaled back or eliminated," then an average of $150,000 in debt is a daunting figure.

As I read more and more, I realized what was most alarming was the possibility that law school isn't an anomaly but instead "suffers from many of the same doubts and problems that plague all of higher education," as the Center for American Progress writes in a 2011 report.

The landscape for professional graduate degrees is changing, and acceptance into a program isn't the fail-safe future it once was.

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

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