July 31, 2015
The Wall Street Journal’s recent story about law-school funded jobs is a good example of the slant that has pervaded its law school coverage for the last several years. The general outline of the WSJ story is as follows: job outcomes for law school graduates have become so terrible that law schools are creating fake jobs for their graduates, not to help students succeed, but to game the U.S. News rankings. The implication of the story is that law school is not only a bad idea for economic reasons, but that law schools are fundamentally corrupt and dishonest.
The problem is that the WSJ has taken information out of context and presented it in a way that is misleading. Like a Rorschach test, the story reveals more about the Wall Street Journal than it reveals about the subject of the story.
Here are some problems with the WSJ's coverage:
1. The data visualizations are misleading
There is a standard and widely accepted way to present percentage data. The minimum possible value is 0 percent. The maximum possible value is 100 percent. Therefore, a figure showing percentages should almost always be scaled from zero to 100 percent. The Wall Street Journal violates this rule of data visualization in ways that are revealing.
The WSJ scaled the figure at the left, showing law school employment, from 60 percent to 95 percent. This makes law school employment look lower than it really is, and exaggerates the decline in employment.
The middle chart, showing law-school funded employment is scaled from 0 to 6 percent. This makes law-school funded jobs look like a huge proportion of employment rather than a tiny one (4 to 5 percent). Contrary to the thrust of the WSJ’s story, there does not seem to be much of a relationship between overall employment outcomes and the proportion of school-funded jobs.
(The third chart, showing the proportion of school-funded jobs that are full time, long-term legal jobs increasing over time, is not commented on in the text of the story).
2. There is no discussion of what percentage of graduates of other programs are working positions funded by their institutions and little discussion of whether such jobs might be helpful
School-funded jobs are not unique to law schools. Whereas press coverage of law schools hiring their own graduates has been overwhelmingly negative, coverage of colleges hiring their own graduates has generally been positive or the issue simply hasn’t been covered. People might have doubts about educational institutions that never hire their own graduates for open positions, just as we might doubt a manufacturer or retailer that did not use any of its own products.
Are law schools more likely than other educational programs to hire their own graduates? Are law-school funded jobs better or worse than these other school-funded jobs? Are law-school funded jobs more or less likely to lead to good outcomes over the long term?
None of these important contextual issues are raised by the WSJ.
Even Above the Law provided a more balanced discussion of the possible upsides and downsides of school-funded jobs.
A similar issue arose with press coverage of competitive merit scholarships. Law schools were condemned harshly for policies that are also widely used by colleges and state governments, whereas colleges generally received more balanced coverage. This was the case even though law students were actually more likely to keep their competitive scholarships than were many undergraduates.
3. There is no discussion of how overall law school employment compares to employment for recent college graduates or graduates of other programs.
When it comes to apples-to-apples comparisons of law school graduates to similar bachelor’s degree holders with similar levels of work experience at the same point in time, law school graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to be employed full time, and no less likely to be employed in a job that is related to what they studied. They are also likely to be earning substantially more money than their less educated counterparts. For the overwhelming majority of law school graduates, the lifetime boost to earnings more than makes up for the cost of law school.
The problem is not law school employment outcomes. The problem is that the labor market in general is challenging for everyone, especially the young and inexperienced. Law graduates generally do better than similar college graduates, who in turn generally do better than similar high school graduates.
Law schools are not the employment story. The employment story is the debate about aggregate demand and fiscal stimulus, and how best to provide more workers with the benefits conferred by higher education.
4. There is no discussion of how law school employment reporting compares to employment reporting for other educational institutions or standard definitions of “employment” used by the government
Under standard definitions of employment used by the U.S. government and just about everyone else, employment counts as employment whether it is school-funded or not, whether it is long term or full time or not, whether it is highly paid or not.
The use of non-standard definitions by law schools makes law school difficult to compare to alternatives. This does not reflect higher or lower ethical standards—it simply reflects data collection and reporting practices that are not well thought out. It can bias the presentation of the data in a way that makes law school look worse relative to alternatives when in fact law school employment outcomes under standardized measurements are usually better than many likely alternatives.
The standard definition of employment is not the only interesting measure of outcomes, so law schools may also want to consider other measures. But any measure they use needs to be standardized and comparable across educational programs rather than used exclusively by law schools.
July 16, 2015
A new empirical article by Tom Ginsburg and Thomas J. Miles finds evidence of possible complementarity between scholarly output and quality of teaching at the University of Chicago.
From the conclusion:
The recent debate on the mission of American law schools has hinged on the assumption that a trade-off exists between teaching and research, and this article’s analysis, although limited in various ways, casts some doubt on that assumption.
Tom Ginsburg & Thomas J. Miles, The Teaching/ Research Trade-Off in Law: Data From the Right Tail, 39 Evaluation Rev. 46 (2015).
July 14, 2015
Two Colorado law professors (actual scholars, not the notorious clown!) have undertaken an interesting longitudinal study of law school success, looking at data, though, from just two schools: Colorado and Case Western. It is informative about schools with similar profiles, but I wonder whether the results hold if one looks at much stronger or much weaker schools?
(Thanks to Dean Rowan for the pointer.)
July 10, 2015
According to LSAC, June 2015 LSAT takers were up 6.6% from June 2014, the first time we've seen an increase since June 2010, and the biggest increase since June 2009. I wouldn't suppose that this means we will see a significant increase in applicants, but it certainly seems likely we've hit a plateau.
July 08, 2015
June 22, 2015
ABA Task Force on Financing Legal Education Advocates Disclosure, Experimentation and More Empirical Research (Michael Simkovic)
The ABA Task Force on Financing Legal Education’s report was released last week. I was among the people who testified before the Task Force last summer, and the report cites both my presentation and my research with Frank McIntyre on The Economic Value of a Law Degree. Consistent with our research, the report notes that challenges facing legal education are similar to challenges facing higher education more generally, and notes extremely low student loan default rates for law school borrowers.
The report is forthright about the limitations of existing data and careful in its recommendations—most of which relate to:
- disseminating existing information more clearly (especially about student loan repayment options),
- gathering better information going forward (especially about tuition and scholarships), and
- structuring “experiments” in legal education (e.g., relaxation of accreditation rules) as field experiments that facilitate causal inference by trained social science researchers.
The report notes that legal education appears to be responding to market forces. After declines in applicants, law schools reduced capacity and offered more scholarships. Actual tuition increases have been lower than widely publicized increases in sticker tuition because of increased use of scholarships (tuition-discounting), although net-tuition has still increased faster than inflation as measured by CPI-U.
The ABA Task Force on Financing Legal Education report urges the legal profession to support federal student loan forgiveness programs that encourage public service.
Some student loan forgiveness programs have been criticized by politically powerful, media savvy, and well-funded think tanks, which claim that these programs will be costly for taxpayers. (I am skeptical of many of the think tank estimates for empirical and mathematical reasons, but that is a discussion for another day). Loan forgiveness programs may be revisited in upcoming budget negotiations. Many are expecting reduced funding for higher education to help fund increased military spending.
The Task Force on Financing Legal Education’s report is a major improvement over last year’s report from another Task Force assembled by the ABA, The Task Force on the Future of Legal Education. This year’s report is both better researched and more cautious in its claims and recommendations.
Here. The two most concrete proposals are to mandate enhanced financial counseling for prospective students, to be sure they understand federal loan programs and their options; and to mandate greater disclosure of law school finances, including tuition discounting. I was also pleased to see on p. 22 that evidence triumphed over anecdote and ideology when, citing the work of Simkovic and McIntyre, the Report notes that, "Despite the cost, the best available evidence suggests a significant lifetime income premium for those with a law degree compared to those with a bachelor’s degree."
June 16, 2015
So how should our understanding of student loans apply to law students? Mortgages are routinely repaid over 30-years, even though owner-occupied housing is close to pure consumption (most of the value of housing is consumed as imputed rental income, with appreciation averaging only around 1 percent above inflation). Legal education typically provides a much higher rate of return than real estate, and is probably closer to investment than consumption.
Rather than focus on initial salaries at graduation alongside student loan balances, it would be more appropriate to emphasize student loan debt service payments, assuming students pay their loans over several decades and with payments that match the expected trajectory of earnings. This would be an apples-to-apples comparison—initial cash flows compared to initial cash flows.*
It also makes sense to report student loan payments in real terms by subtracting expected inflation (typically around 3 percent) from the nominal interest rate before calculating loan payments.** (As inflation increases wages and the prices of goods and services, a nominally flat debt payment becomes less valuable in terms of what the money can buy and how much work is necessary to earn enough to make the payment). Adjusting for inflation won’t take into account the increase in real earnings (above and beyond inflation) that typically comes with additional work experience and secular increases in economy-wide productivity, but at least takes into account increases in earnings that match inflation.
$100,000 in debt repaid in equal installments monthly over 30 years at a 3 percent real interest rate (6 percent nominal) comes to $5,059 per year ($422 per month) in real terms. In nominal terms (without adjusting for the power of inflation to make debts easier to repay), the payments are $7,200 per year ($600 per month).
With a graduated extended repayment plan over 25 years, the real initial monthly payments come to $3,420 per year ($285 per month). In nominal terms (without adjusting for the power of inflation to make debts easier to repay), the initial payment is around $6,000 per year or $500 per month.
Law graduates typically earn around $60,000 to $75,000 per year to start and have debt service payments of around $3,400 to $7,200 per year. Recent law graduates have much more cash at their disposal than most bachelor’s degree holders of a similar age even after paying down their loans.
Law students’ incomes can support their debt service payments, as demonstrated by the exceedingly low student loan default rates for recent law graduates. It is time for the ABA to rethink how law schools disclose debt balances and student loan repayment obligations so that students are not mislead into underinvesting in education.
Journalists and education experts should also be careful to discuss student loans using apples-to-apples comparison—cash flows to cash flows, and lifetime present values to lifetime present values.
* If student loan balances or initial cost of education are presented, these should be compared to the expected present value of the boost to earnings from the degree over the course of a lifetime. Thus, for example, whenever reporting that law school costs around $100,000 on average, it should also be reported that the average value before taxes and tuition is around $1,000,000 and that the median value is around $750,000.
** Part of what graduated loan repayments accomplishes is to make real payments closer to level. If nominal payments remain flat, as in standard fixed repayment loans, in real terms, payments decline over time and repayment of the loan is front-loaded.
June 15, 2015
A shorthand approach sometimes used to compare the cost and benefits of higher education—comparing student loan balances at graduation to first year earnings—can be seriously misleading. The implication of this approach is that student loans have to be repaid in full shortly after graduation, and that graduates’ low initial earnings will persist for the rest of their lives.
This is an apples to oranges comparison. An investment in education pays dividends throughout one’s life. First-year earnings are one small, unrepresentative, slice of lifetime earnings. Comparing a lifetime investment to one year of expected returns on it feeds ignorance about how student loans and lifetime earnings actually work. It thus risks misleading prospective students into making financially disastrous decisions to underinvest in education.
Student loans are meant to solve a specific problem—the costs of education come as a series of large upfront payments for tuition and living expenses, while the benefits accrue later in life in the form of higher earnings. Except for the minority of students who are fortunate enough to have rich and generous parents who cover their tuition, students generally have two options—save or borrow.
Saving is inefficient because it requires students to work for many years with a lower level of education and for much lower wages, and to complete their degrees much later in life. Completing a given level of education earlier helps maximize the number of years of expected higher earnings with a higher level of education. Borrowing to invest in education is therefore more efficient than saving to invest in education. Some of the benefits of financing accrue to the student borrower in the form of higher lifetime earnings compared to saving, and some of the benefits accrue to the lender in the form of interest and fees. Another approach to financing higher education—more popular in Europe, Australia, and Canada than the United States—features higher public spending and higher tax burdens, sometimes with a tax-like percent-of-earnings fee explicitly tied to university education. The social democratic approach, like the U.S. approach, involves providing something of value up front in return for a fraction of graduates’ incomes later.
Student loans enable students to pay for their own education by converting the cash flows associated with investment in education from large upfront payments into a series of much smaller payments spread out over time. Ideally, these payments should closely match the timing of the benefits of education—that is, the timing of the boost to earnings from education.
Because the benefits of education accrue over the course of a career—perhaps 40 years or more—and earnings typically do not peak until middle age, the costs of education should ideally also be spread over a similar time frame.
The prospect of high payments needed to pay back loans very quickly ex-ante could cause prospective students to underinvest in education. As life expectancy and career length increase, so should initial investment in education.
If this goal of matching the timing of cash flows is accomplished, then at every point in time, with more education, students will have more cash at their disposal. The boost to earnings from education will more than cover student loan debt service payments, and the initial borrowing will enable students to maintain a decent lifestyle while pursuing studies instead of working full time. (For a discussion of the advantages of leveraged investments early in life, see Ayers & Naelbuff).
That is one important reason why federal student loans can be repaid over 25 to 30* years (so-called “extended” repayment). Plans are available under which monthly payments start low and increase over time to match the typical trajectory of lifetime earnings (“graduated” or “graduated extended” repayment), or in which payments dynamically adjust up and down with actual borrower earnings (if earnings fall below a certain level) to better match cash flows (“income-contingent” or “income-based” repayment).
Because these extended and income adjusted plans are better tailored to the purpose of student loans—matching positive and negative cash flows—one of these plans should be the default option for student borrowers instead of the now “standard” 10-year repayment period. 10-years to pay for an education that provides benefits over 40 years makes little sense. For law graduates, real earnings typically continue to grow for 30 years after graduation.
* Consolidated loans can be repaid over 30 years, but some consolidated loans may not be eligible for income based repayment plans.
Paying loans back slower typically will not affect the economic value of education, notwithstanding the fact that nominal interest payments will increase. Paying loans back faster or slower typically will not affect the economic value of education as long as two conditions are met:
- Interest rates remain unchanged regardless of whether a loan is repaid over 10 or 30 years (this is the case for federal student loans, but not for mortgages or most other debt instruments most of the time)
- The interest rate on student loans is appropriate, in that it matches up with default and loss risk levels for lenders, the opportunity cost of capital, and time preferences.
If condition 2 holds, then the interest rate will equal the discount rate which is used to convert cash flows occurring at different points in time into the same currency so that they can be compared. If the discount rate is 6 percent, then there is no valuation difference between paying $1,000 today or paying $1,060 one year from now, just as there is no difference between paying one U.S. Dollar or the equivalent in Euro cents. If students choose to refinance or pay their loans back faster than they are legally required to repay them, this suggests that the interest rate on student loans is too high.
June 12, 2015
The Department of Education has been overcharging low-risk professional school students for federal student loans (relative to the market rate) while keeping rates low for undergraduates who are far more likely to default. (For previous coverage, see here, here and here).
Bloomberg BNA's Bankruptcy Reporter describes the predictable consequences of this politically driven mispricing: Professional graduates are refinancing into less expensive private loans and removing themselves from the government's risk pool.
There is a simple solution that will shut down what Bloomberg describes as an "exodus of top borrowers" while preserving student lending profits for the benefit of taxpayers. The government should charge low risk graduate students less.
Update, June 13, 2015: Jordan Weissmann at Slate covers the story.