“The Case Against Law School” in last week’s NY Times opened with an article by former Northwestern Law School Dean David Van Zandt, whom I’ve never met. Regarded as a maverick in the legal academy, he’s now president of The New School. I don’t know how the Times selected its essayists, but Van Zandt earned my “Unfortunate Comment Award” with this:
“Law schools and their faculties have a vested interest in requiring students to spend more time on campus and more money at their schools.”
If he intended his revelation to be that of a whistle-blower, he blew the whistle on himself. Tackling vested interests that run contrary to what’s best for students should be a defining characteristic of leadership in higher education. But during his fifteen years as dean, he contributed uniquely to a problem he now decries — squeezing more money out of students.
Here’s how. Van Zandt was an outspoken advocate of running law schools as businesses and relying on misguided metrics to do it. One was the U.S. News rankings, which he publicly embraced and almost every other dean condemned. When it comes to money, the rankings methodology — so flawed in so many ways — rewards schools’ high expenditures (requiring high tuition) without regard to value.
Perhaps it’s coincidental, but consider the tuition trend during Van Zandt’s tenure: When he took over in 1995, three years’ tuition for a Northwestern law degree totaled $60,000. By 2008, it had more than doubled to third highest in the country. When he left in 2010, the degree cost $150,000 — just for tuition. Student law school debt has risen accordingly.
When used to run law schools, misguided metrics pose other perils to student welfare. For example, transfer students’ LSATs don’t count in the U.S. News calculus, but they’re lucrative additions to any law school’s bottom line. Under Van Zandt, Northwestern recruited transfers aggressively. But the resulting growth in graduating class size hasn’t served students who entered as 1Ls, especially in today’s job market.
Then there’s the accelerated JD — a flagship initiative of Van Zandt’s final long-range strategic plan that he still promotes from afar. The plan incorporated his view of law school as a business that placed special value on large firms. After all, they were key customers because of their metrics: Big law pays new graduates the highest starting salaries, thereby justifying ever-increasing tuition. This dubious short-term approach, along with his efforts to sell it, drew attention away from the school’s other vitally important strengths.
As for the students, acceleration buries first-years in additional courses to develop “core competencies” while reducing time for thoughtful reflection about their places in a diverse and challenging profession. Before implementing that plan, he should have read Scott Turow’s One L and reviewed big law’s associate attrition and career dissatisfaction rates.
Finally, students in the two-year accelerated program pay the same total tuition as the traditional three-year people because, according to the school’s website, “Northwestern Law prices tuition by the degree pursued rather than the length of enrollment.” That’s a choice, not an economic imperative.
Defending that choice in the Times, Van Zandt wrote, “The cost to the school [of the accelerated students] remains the same because the credit hours remain the same.” That’s a non-sequitur. Certainly, the accelerated group adds cost for its own first-year section — five required courses, plus negotiation and business school-type classes. But twenty-seven students in the class of 2011 generated $4 million incremental tuition dollars during their two years. As Van Zandt elsewhere explained, after their first year “they are integrated with the rest of the students.” If so, the school’s marginal cost of accelerated students’ second-year credit hours should be minimal. Including them with everyone else should bring its average cost per student down, too.
It turns out that running law schools as businesses that focus on misguided metrics is dangerous. During Van Zandt’s final years at Northwestern, its U.S. News ranking dropped from ninth to twelfth and its NLJ 250 placement rate for graduates joining big firms dropped from first to eighth.
Call it karma.