May 10, 2015
Competitive Scholarships, Mandatory Courses, and the Costs and Benefits of Disclosure (Michael Simkovic)
There is a wide range of views about the benefits, costs, and appropriate use of conditional merit scholarships—scholarships that under their terms, will only be retained after the first year of law school if students maintain a minimum GPA or minimum class rank (if there is a mandatory grading curve, a minimum GPA effectively is a class rank requirement). These questions implicate both broad value judgments and also very specific empirical questions to which we many not have clear answers.
1) Is competition for grades a help or a hindrance to learning?
2) Is competition, with greater rewards for winners than for losers, inherently moral or immoral?
- Does the answer depend on whether the outcome of the competition is driven by luck, skill, or effort?
- Does the answer depend on how large the differences in rewards are between winners and losers?
3) Does disclosure alter student decision-making?
- If so, how?
- Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
- If it is a good thing do the benefits of disclosure outweigh the costs of providing disclosure?
- Are some ways of providing disclosure clearer and more meaningful than others? Could too much disclosure be overwhelming?
Disclosures are sometimes very effective at improving market efficiency. Sometimes disclosures appear to have no effect. Sometimes they have the opposite of the intended or expected effect. For example, disclosure of compensation of high level corporate executives of publicly traded companies may have contributed to an increase in executive pay (see also here.)
In the case of conditional merit scholarships, the direct administrative costs of providing disclosure appear minimal. The effects of such disclosure, if any, remain unknown. I support access to greater information about conditional scholarship retention rates, not only for law schools but also for all educational institutions.
Scholarship retention rates at many undergraduate institutions under government-backed programs appear to be lower than scholarship retention rates at most law schools. Around half of Georgia Hope Scholarship recipients lost their scholarship after the first year. Around 25 to 30 percent of Georgia Hope Scholarship recipients retained their scholarships for all four years of college. Nevertheless, conditional merit scholarships can have positive effects on undergraduate enrollment and academic performance. A fascinating randomized experiment by Angrist, Lang and Oreopolous found that financial incentives improved grades for women but not for men. A recent experiment also found evidence that merit scholarships tied to grades can increase student effort and academic performance at community colleges.
Unfortunately, there is some evidence that the use of merit scholarships tied to GPA by undergraduate institutions—where grade distributions and course workload vary widely by major—can reduce the likelihood that students complete their studies in science technology engineering and math (STEM) fields. Students who major in STEM fields have a higher chance of losing their scholarships
In other words, if students can shop for “easy As” rather than study harder to improve their performance, they can reduce their own future earning prospects. The approach law schools take—merit scholarships tied to mandatory grading curves and a required curriculum—may be better for students in the long run. Indeed, law students might benefit financially if additional courses, such as instruction in financial literacy, were mandatory.*
Greater disclosure of grading distributions may exacerbate grade shopping and grade inflation, which can undermine student effort and learning. Some models suggest that grade inflation is contagious across institutions (see also here). (It should be possible to disclose scholarship retention rates without disclosing grade distributions).
In some contexts, such as securities regulation or pharmaceuticals, disclosure requirements tend to be high. In other areas, such as employment contracts, disclosure tends to be more limited. We may not always get the balance right. These questions have lead to a rich research literature in law, economics, and psychology (see Bainbridge, Lang, Mathios, Coffee, Kaplow, Easterbrook and Fischel, Romano, and Schwartz). In all cases, whether and how disclosures alter behavior is an empirical question. How the benefits compare to the costs are empirical questions mixed with subjective value judgments.
Given the current limited state of knowledge, and good faith and understandable disagreements about subjective value differences, strident views on one side or another, and moral condemnations of those entertaining different viewpoints, are not appropriate.
Law professors have an obligation to teach students to think like lawyers, weigh evidence, and consider different arguments and different perspectives. We should not shut down discussion with swaggering declarations of the moral superiority of our own views or ad-hominem attacks against those with whom we disagree.
A recent post (in the comments) by Brian Tamanaha (or someone posting under his name and with a similar rhetorical style**) highlights the unfortunate tendency by some toward moral posturing. Tamanaha writes:
“[Those who condemn conditional scholarships are] speaking up for the integrity of legal academia. It is embarrassing that law professors would now rise up to defend employment reporting standards … criticized by outsiders (see New York Times "Bait and Switch" piece), practices which have since been repudiated and reformed by new ABA standards. I do not understand why Simkovic is re-raising these resolved issues, but it does not help us regain our collective credibility.
After reading these posts, I have begun to wonder whether a sense of professional responsibility is what separates the two sides in this discussion. It is not a coincidence that John Steele, [Bernard Burk], and others who strongly condemn these practices have taught legal ethics.”
In other words, if you question Brian Tamanaha’s reasoning and conclusions—as I have—then you have no integrity and dubious ethics, are irresponsible and unprofessional, and are an embarrassment to the legal academy.
Bernard Burk, though declaring his disdain for ad-hominem attacks, accuses those with whom he disagrees of being “partisan.” He compares competition for grades and scholarships to physically beating students. Burk compares law schools to gangsters and evil witches. He claims that the positive effects of conditional scholarships on student motivation and learning “smells of post-hoc rationalization.” (Most of the labor economics studies demonstrating positive effects of financial incentives on student performance were available before The New York Times and the law school critics targeted law school conditional scholarships; the critics overlooked the peer-reviewed literature).
Deborah Merritt, though generally providing an intelligent discussion of conditional scholarship issues, compares conditional scholarships in which adults who lose the competition for grades receive a free year of law school to the fictional “Hunger Games” in which children who lose a physical struggle are murdered. (Paul Caron repeats this unfortunate comparison when summarizing the debate; so does Bernard Burk).
Paul Campos compares those who disagree with him about data disclosure standards to “Holocaust deniers.”
Law school critics have not persisted through the force of argument or evidence, but rather through their ability to make an honest discussion of the issues so unpleasant that very few who disagree with them wish to engage. We should thank Professor Telman for his courage and for elevating the conversation from polemics to evidence-based inquiry. As more professors and journalists raise substantive questions about law school critics’ narrative, it will become increasingly difficult for the critics to foreclose factual and ethical inquiry through ad-hominem attacks and hyperbole.
* A recent survey by John Coates, Jessie Fried, and Kathryn Spier at Harvard suggests that large law firm employers believe instruction in certain technically challenging business electives, especially accounting, corporate finance, and corporations, is particularly valuable on the job. Data does not exist to evaluate whether enrollment in such courses actually boosts earnings or employment, or is even correlated with greater earnings or employment. However, one working hypothesis is that such courses might be the law school equivalent of undergraduate STEM or economics majors. A study of high school financial literacy mandates suggests positive long-term effects on enrollees’ financial well-being.
** The first and only time I met Brian Tamanaha in person was at the 2013 Law & Society meeting in Boston where he spoke on a panel. Professor Tamanaha shut down questions from the audience about whether his presentation of law school data was misleading by insisting that in our hearts surely we all knew he was right and that any question about whether he was wrong on the facts, and any attempt to rely on data rather than emotionally charged anecdotes, was a sign of flawed moral character.
May 10, 2015 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Ludicrous Hyperbole Watch, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice, Science, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink
March 18, 2014
...and eight accept, bringing the size of the full-time faculty from 48 down to 40. The school is also shrinking its class size slightly. Seems like sensible responses to the current economic climate for legal education.
July 16, 2013
Tsk, tsk--technically accurate, but also misleading, since it omits the fact that NYU also had the third highest number of candidates on the market (and by a wide margin). In fact, NYU's percentage placement of its academic job seekers is quite respectable (and better than Harvard's, as it happens!), but the fact is most NYU teaching candidates did not get academic jobs.
December 13, 2012
October 09, 2012
November 15, 2011
March 16, 2010
November 23, 2009
Quite possibly! Various readers have sent me e-mails marvelling at the fact that a legal educator, a Dean no less, actually used the category "top 14" in public and without irony. (As one colleague quipped: "Didn't Van Zandt notice that according to U.S. News, Northwestern's reputation is no longer "top 14"!") The category, purportedly based on the overall U.S. News rank of schools, is meant to draw a line between schools at the bottom of the elite law schools (like Northwestern, Cornell, Duke, and Georgetown) and schools with which, in reality, they frequently compete for faculty and students, notably Texas and UCLA (but also often Vanderbilt and USC). Yet, as we noted before,
It's hard to quarrel with the fact that the same 14 schools have been ranked in the top 14 by U.S. News since circa 1994. The question one might have expected someone to ask is: so what? The "top 14" by this measure correlates with nothing of any interest to anyone: it does not correlate with faculty quality, quality of student body, job placement, placement in law teaching, or Supreme Court clerkships. In other words, "top 14" correlates with nothing that would matter to anyone informed about legal education and the legal profession.
And it doesn't even correlate with the same fourteen schools based on reputation as measured by U.S. News!
So far, to my knowledge, Duke, Cornell, and Georgetown have avoided trying to imply that they compete on a different level from UCLA and Texas by appeal to this silly concept whose provenance is discussion boards for college students. (If I've missed others pulling the same stunt, please e-mail me.) The Super Lawyer ranking of law schools was already silly enough without then re-doing it, as the Northwestern Dean did, to exclude schools with far higher per capita representation on the grounds that they weren't in the U.S. News 'top 14.' No doubt UCLA Interim Dean Yeazell and Texas Dean Sager are impressed!
I used to run examples of ludicrous hyperbole by law schools and law school deans; perhaps we need a new category for "can a law school or dean sink any lower in self-promotion"?
January 23, 2008
Columbia Law School ranks third among law schools in the number of it's [sic] J.D. alumni in teaching positions at American law schools.
This is particularly striking, since after I called attention to Michigan's puffery, they revised the page to read:
Michigan ranks in the top 4 for the number of alumni teaching in U.S. law schools, and in the top 3 for tenure- and tenure-track positions.
Assuming both schools are using the same database (supplied by the AALS), then what it means is that if one looks at all those listed in the AALS directory--meaning clinical professors, legal writing instructors, various deans without academic positions, lecturers of various kinds, as well as emeritus faculty and regular tenure-stream academic faculty--Columbia has the third highest number of alumni listed, and Michigan has the fourth highest. (Harvard is #1, and Yale is #2.) When you look only at tenured and tenure-track faculty, then Michigan is #3 in total number of tenured and tenure-track faculty, while Harvard remains #1 and Yale #2. This, of course, reflects those who graduated law schools from the 1940s onwards.
These results aren't surprising when one remembers that for much of the post-WWII period, Columbia was one of the top three law schools (up until the late 1960s, roughly), while Michigan was one of the top five (up until the 1980s, roughly). Stanford emerged as a powerhouse in the 1960s (in part through raids on Columbia), while Chicago, long one of the top five or six, moved into the super elite ranks with the rise of law and economics, in which it played the pivotal role, in the 1970s.
In addition, of course, Columbia and Michigan are nearly twice the size of Chicago and Stanford, meaning that they have graduated nearly twice as many students. (Harvard is more than twice the size of Yale.) As soon as you take that into account, you get the more familiar picture noted previously, and confirmed in more recent studies, in which Yale dominates (relative to its size) the market for law teachers, followed by Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford, and then a drop-off before the next cluster of schools, namely, Columbia, Michigan, NYU, Berkeley, and Virginia.
Given the history, and the size differentials, the stats that Columbia and Michigan emphasize are not at all surprising. This data is not, in short, wrong, but it is, arguably, a bit misleading to prospective students who have a strong interest in teaching careers.
January 11, 2008
I haven't run one of these in awhile, but having recently gotten a solicitation for money from my law school alma mater, Michigan, I decided to peruse the Law School homepage, only to find this:
The University of Michigan Law School is the international center for interdisciplinary legal scholarship and teaching.
It's not entirely clear what this means, since most of the world's law schools don't value "interdisciplinary legal scholarship and teaching" as highly as elite U.S. law schools do. But even with respect to the U.S., the claim seems slightly preposterous. What does Michigan mean to imply about Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, NYU, Columbia, and Berkeley, several of which could justifiably make the same claim? Law and economics, for example, is still the most influential and prestigious area of interdisciplinary legal scholarship, yet Michigan has a very limited presence there (having one excellent senior faculty member, Omri Ben-Shahar, plus promising junior faculty, does not a law and economics powerhouse make!). Michigan is very strong, indeed, in legal history, law and philosophy, and law and social science (economics excluded), among other areas, but it is not dominant in any of those fields.
Also surprising was this claim:
Whether measured by contribution to the number of law faculty hired in a given year or by the number of graduates who pursue academia, Michigan ranks in the top 5 of law schools.
I can't comment on the second claim: it may well be that Michigan is in the top five for the number of graduates who try to pursue academia. And while it used to be true that Michigan was clearly in the top five for both the gross and per capita number of graduates hired into law teaching, the most recent data (including some that I will publish later this year) suggests that this is probably not true any longer (Michigan will still be in the top ten, of course).
Having now called out some website puffery, let me conclude on a more positive note: under Dean Evan Caminker, Michigan has done excellent hiring the last few years, and has completely rejuvenated a faculty that took a beating in the 1990s. The recent studies of scholarly impact certainly bear that out (esp. when compared to earlier studies). So Michigan is in great shape, even without the puffery!