BACK TO SCHOOL SPECIAL: LAW SCHOOL TUITION!

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal highlights the efforts of some law schools to generate applicants (and enroll students) in the declining legal market. The print version of the paper included a large photograph of University of Illinois College of Law Dean Bruce P. Smith. It’s an odd time for that school to seek publicity. Not long ago, the ABA fined the school $250,000 for intentionally submitting false LSAT and GPA data.

The new initiatives include scholarships, although for many schools those aren’t really new. For years, some law schools have used non-need-based financial aid to lure students with high LSATs. Lurking behind the current initiatives — and the counterproductive behavior of far too many law school deans — are the ubiquitous U.S. News rankings. Obsession over those rankings created a climate that produced the University of Illinois College of Law’s sanctionable conduct.

There’s just one problem…

The difficulty for many “merit” scholarship recipients is two-fold. First, the money often disappears after year one. For years two and three, the law school business model reasserts its power and, for most students, loans for tuition keep school revenues and profits flowing. The New York Times wrote about that phenomenon last year.

I don’t know what the University of Illinois College of Law’s approach will be, but tuition there is $44,520 for non-residents and $37,100 for residents. Dean Smith said that grants went to every member of the class of 2014 (including those admitted from the wait list) at a total cost of $3.6 million. Maintaining that average of $18,000 per student (assuming enrollment of 200) for all three years would be a daunting task. After all, it’s a state school and Illinois is in terrible financial shape.

Make that two problems…

The more abiding challenge for many students surfaces a bit later: limited job opportunities. For example, the University of Illinois College of Law awarded 190 J.D. degrees in 2011. According to its July 2012 ABA employment report, nine months after graduation, only 96 had full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

Other schools mentioned in the WSJ article include:

USC (Gould School of Law): 207 graduates in 2011; nine months after graduation, 134 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

UCLA: 344 graduates in 2011; 211 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

George Washington University: 518 graduates in 2011; 421 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

Brooklyn Law School: 455 graduates in 2011; 215 with full-time long term jobs requiring bar passage.

The overall full-time long term employment rate for all 2011 law school graduates with jobs requiring bar passage was 55 percent.

An old trick

The premise of these scholarship programs is simple. Rather than reduce tuition for everyone, keep the list price high (hotel managers would call it a room’s “rack rate”) for those who can afford it and offer differential discounts to those who are price sensitive at the margin. The secrecy of individual grants creates a perfect environment for implementing what economists might call pricing along the demand curve. Extract as much as possible from each buyer while maximizing total sales (enrollments).

For anyone with a long-run perspective that extends beyond filling up next year’s law school classrooms, the approach might seem a bit perplexing. If there are twice as many law jobs as there are graduating students with J.D.s, might it make more sense to adopt a strategy that reduced total enrollment?

To their credit, some schools, including George Washington University, are doing that. But for the most part, each law school is striving to maintain enrollments and the credentials of entering classes. Insofar as they are now throwing scholarship money at prospective students who are uncertain about whether to attend law school at all, they’re making things even worse.

U.S. News strikes again

Professor William Henderson correctly closes the article with this observation: “It’s the fear of a U.S. News downward spiral. It’s hard to come up in the rankings when your applications are going down.”

Thank goodness the U.S. News rankings’ guru Robert Morse clarified his magazine’s position on all of this: “[T]he rankings should not be a management tool that law school administrators use as the basis for proving that their school is improving or declining.”

Unfortunately, they do.

WORSE THAN CHEATERS

Scandals involving schools of higher education lying to enhance their U.S. News rankings seem to be appearing more frequently. The most recent confession came from Claremont McKenna College. Its false numbers helped make it the ninth-best liberal arts college in the country. As usual, the school’s top leader blamed a rogue player instead of acknowledging a pervasive problem: deference to idiotic metrics has displaced reasoned judgment and the resulting institutional culture promotes predictable behavior.

Some difficulties flowing from U.S. News rankings methodology make the news. Like other recent instances of misreported data, the focus on Claremont relates to false admissions statistics, namely, SATs. At the University of Illinois College of Law, it was LSATs and GPAs.

Of course, such behavior is reprehensible. But do the rogue villains differ more in degree than in kind from deans who game the system? Some solicit transfer students whose low LSATs led to their rejection as entering one-Ls, but whose scores don’t count when they arrive as tuition-paying 2-Ls. Like the rogues, they seek to boost selectivity scores as measured by LSATs and undergraduate GPAs that comprise more than 20 percent of a law school’s total U.S. News ranking.

Similarly, employment rates at graduation and nine months later account for 18 percent of a law school’s ranking. That encourages deans to hire their own graduates for short-term projects and — until recent ABA revisions become fully effective — permits them to count every part-time, non-legal job as employment.

Expenditures per student account for about 10 percent of a law school’s score. That encourages deans to spend more money and increase tuition to cover the resulting costs while students incur more debt. The resulting vicious circle exacerbates intergenerational antagonisms that are rapidly becoming the legal profession’s — and society’s — next big crisis.

All of the recent attention about bogus admissions and placement numbers shines an important light on some dirty little corners of academia. But more profound rankings methodology problems have gone unnoticed. Specifically, selectivity and placement factors combined barely equal the weight that the ranking system gives to “Quality Assessment” — which accounts for 40 percent of a school’s overall score.

How does the U.S. News perform “Quality Assessment”? Two ways.

First, it sends out surveys to four individuals at all accredited law schools throughout the country: dean, dean of academic affairs, chair of faculty appointments, and the most recently tenured faculty member. The survey asks each recipient to rate all other schools on a scale from marginal (1) to outstanding (5). It doesn’t require that any respondent have any knowledge about any of the 190 schools that he or she rates. (Respondents have a “don’t know” option, but U.S. News doesn’t disclose how many used it. After all, that information would taint its misleading 66 percent response rate.)

A second assessment score comes from lawyers and judges. They, too, get the U.S. News survey asking for (1) to (5) responses about every school. Apart from 750 hiring partners and recruiters at law firms who made the newly developed U.S. News-Best Lawyers list of “Best Law Firms,” information about the “legal professionals, including hiring partners of law firms, state attorneys general, and selected state and federal judges” receiving the survey isn’t disclosed. But the anemic response rate is: 14 percent. One can reasonably ask why such flawed attempts at “quality assessment” should count at all.

One answer is that eliminating them would magnify the importance of the other factors, including test scores. In that respect, there’s a curious aspect of the recent NY Times article about Claremont’s false SATs. It quoted Robert Franek at length. Franek is senior vice president of The Princeton Review, a test-preparation business that has flourished as a principal benefactor of the U.S. News rankings mania.

The Princeton Review does rankings, too. Anyone who regards its list of law schools with the “Best Career Prospects” as meaningful should take a look at the top five for 2012 and ask, “Where are Harvard, Yale and Stanford?”

And then there’s The Princeton Review‘s original October 12, 2010 press release (subsequently revised) that announced the 2011 winner in the “Best Law School Professors” category: Brown.

Brown, of course, doesn’t have a law school.

THE OTHER BIG 10 SCANDAL

Penn State dominates the headlines, but another Big 10 scandal symbolizes what ails legal education and much of the profession. The two situations aren’t morally equivalent, but it’s too bad there isn’t an attention-getting JoePa at the University of Illinois.

On August 26, the university’s ethics office received a tip about a problem with the U of I College of Law’s LSAT and GPA stats. The resulting ABA investigation continues, but the U of I’s November 7 report identifies a rogue villain.

I think it’s more complicated.

The rogue

Shortly after Paul Pless graduated in 2003, his alma mater hired him (at a salary of $38,500/year) as assistant director for admissions and financial aid. (For years, putting unemployed new grads on the temporary payroll for paltry wages has bolstered schools’ U.S. News rankings. Starting next year, they’ll have to disclose it.) Pless stayed on and, by December 2004, was earning $72,000/year as an assistant dean.

Metrics mania

One of the final report’s first section headings is key:

“Institutional Emphasis on USNWR [U.S. News & World Report] Ranking.”

Not until its 2005 annual report did the school — not Pless — explicitly adopt two new goals: increasing the incoming class’s median LSAT from 163 to 165 and its GPA from 3.42 to 3.5. When the median LSAT came in at 166, then-Dean Heidi Hurd sang Pless’s praises:

“Had we been able to report this increase last year, holding all else equal, we would have moved from 26th to 20th in the U.S. News rankings.”

Except the school hadn’t held “all else equal” to get its historic LSAT boost. The median GPA had plummeted to 3.32 and its overall ranking dropped to 27th. In May 2006, a new strategic plan noted that the admissions emphasis on LSATs had left it “with a GPA profile worse than any other top-50 school.” The new goal: raising the incoming class median LSAT/GPA to 168/3.7 by 2011.

In July, Hurd sought a big pay raise for Pless because, she said, he was “in the hiring sights of every dean in America who wants to improve student rankings.” His salary jumped to $98,000. Up to this point, investigators concluded, there had been relatively minor flaws in the data submitted to the ABA and U.S. News.

The heat is on

Two interim deans served from September 2007 through January 2009. But investigators found that a handful of 2008 discrepancies between actual and reported data for the incoming class of 2011 marked the beginning of a “sustained pattern…that increased in practice and scope through the class of 2014.”

In February 2009, Bruce Smith became dean and had to resolve an open question: should the incoming class of 2012′s median LSAT/GPA target be 165/3.8 or 166/3.7? There had been ongoing internal debate over which combination would maximize the school’s overall U.S. News ranking. Smith described his response to the board of visitors:

“I told Paul [Pless] to push the envelope, think outside the box, take some risk, do things differently…Strive for a 166 [LSAT]/3.8 [GPA]….”

The report exonerates Smith from wrongdoing. But footnote 3 observes that his management style “is goal-oriented and intense, and occasionally intimidating, and that it is not inconceivable that certain employees subordinate to him would be uncomfortable bringing bad news to him.”

For the next two years, Pless didn’t.

“I haven’t let a Dean down yet, and I don’t plan on starting with you Boss,” he’d assured Smith in April 2009.

Median LSATs and GPAs showed continuing improvement; Pless’s salary jumped to $130,000 on the strength of Smith’s glowing review. Indeed, Pless’s exploding compensation at a public university in tough financial straits reveals the power of rankings and deans.

On August 22, 2011, Pless touted the class of 2014′s median LSAT (168) and GPA (3.81). By then, the actual numbers were 163 and 3.7.

Who is to blame? The U of I report says Pless and no one else because he made the data entries. I say read it carefully, draw your own conclusions, and ponder the larger picture. The power of U.S. News rankings and other equally misguided metrics comes from people who rely upon them as definitive measures of the things that matter.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…”

TOO LITTLE; TOO LATE

The ABA is thinking about punishing law schools that lie. What courage!

At the front end of the experience, intentionally inflated undergraduate GPAs and LSATs for Villanova’s admitted students led to an ABA censure in August. The school must now employ an independent compliance monitor for two years. Next up in the hot seat: the University of Illinois College of Law. Now, at the back end, the ABA is considering imposing penalties on law schools that misrepresent graduate job placement data.

This one-school-at-a-time approach misses the larger targets. Along with many law schools’ dubious sales tactics, the ABA itself has contributed to the chronic oversupply of lawyers.

Don’t let a recent Wall Street Journal article about the declining number of law school applicants fool you. Excess supply persists. Although total applicants are down ten percent from last year, the number of students starting law school has actually been rising. Meanwhile, the projected growth in new attorney jobs remains far below what’s required to achieve full employment for lawyers hoping to work as lawyers.

In the fall of 2002, first-year enrollment was 48,400. By 2009 — the last year for which the LSAC has published information — it had climbed to 51,600. In other words, demand still exceeds supply. This year’s ten percent applicant drop — to 78,900 — won’t prompt schools to reduce capacity. Rather, it will encourage growth.

And the ABA isn’t stopping them. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of law schools increased from 144 to 200. During the same period, the total number of law students soared from 64,000 to 145,000.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be only 98,000 net additional legal jobs for the entire decade ending in 2018. At current enrollments, law schools will produce five times that many graduates; baby boomer retirements won’t bridge that gap.

Last year’s drop in applicants may mean that some recent graduates are giving more thought to whether law school is the right path. That would be great news for them and the profession. Unfortunately, the accreditation of new schools and the growth of existing ones is bad news for many would-be lawyers.

Having facilitated a situation that continues to inflict tragic consequences on many unsuspecting victims, the ABA has avoided leading serious remedial efforts. In light of its recent punt on the requirement that law schools report meaningful information about their graduates’ employment status, its now-contemplated scrutiny of individual schools’ placement statistics rings hollow. To wit: the Wal-Mart greeter with a law degree still counts as employed.

The ABA’s piecemeal approach won’t solve the problem. Most law schools are prisoners of short-term profit-maxizing business models and metrics. That’s why too many resort to half-truths or outright deception to enhance U.S. News rankings, pump up demand, and put tuition-paying butts in classrooms.

Until students understand the deep methodological flaws in the U.S. News rankings, too many deans will continue manipulating them. Independent audit of the data that schools submit would help. But it should be part of a larger strategy: providing better information to prospective law students long before they sit for the LSAT.

The law can be a noble calling, but it’s not for everyone. When those enrolling in law school understand what’s ahead — including the possibility that their dream jobs won’t be there — they make better decisions and the entire profession wins. Here’s the harsh truth that will surprise many recruits: Some deans don’t act with much nobility when it comes to pursuing tuition dollars.

In an 1891 letter to his fiance, Louis Brandeis wrote: “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” Twenty years later, he was less optimistic about improving human behavior when he focused instead on practical remedies for misconduct: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

The ABA isn’t going to start stripping schools of their accreditations, but it can put them under brighter lights. Adding surveillance cameras and a few more cops on the beat wouldn’t hurt, either.