August 21, 2017
Vanderbilt Tax Professor Herwig Schlunk wants the federal government to tax university endowments, preferably out of existence. He writes: “In the best of all possible worlds, the federal government could and probably should . . . confiscate[e] all private university endowments . . .”
Toward that end, Schlunk recycles arguments that were discredited years ago.
Professor Schlunk is famous for asserting that law school is a bad investment. Schlunk’s bold claim—based on back of the envelope calculations and highly unscientific website surveys—was popularized by the Wall Street Journal and echoed by sympathetic media outlets. Peer reviewed research by labor economist Frank McIntyre and me—using high quality nationally representative government data and well-established econometric techniques—subsequently demonstrated that Schlunk was mistaken. (See here and here).
This post critiques Schlunk’s recent work on endowments for misuse of discount rates, overlooking the importance of educational quality, mismeasuring student earnings and higher education expenditures, selectively targeting higher education, supporting policies that undermine economic growth, and overlooking stark differences between popular votes and political power.
Misuse of discount rates
To arrive at his headline-grabbing law school result, Schlunk relied on some spectacularly unrealistic assumptions. As Frank McIntyre and I explained four years ago:
“Professor Schlunk’s analysis assumes astronomical discount rates, low earnings growth rates, and zero inflation for thirty-five years. None of these assumptions are empirically or theoretically justifiable.
Most studies [of higher education] by economists have generally used a discount rate between 2.5% and 3%. . . . Compared with the 3% discount rates applied in labor market studies by economists and suggested by the real (net-inflation) costs of financing a law degree . . . Professor Schlunk applies real discount rates of between 8% and 27%.
If Professor Schlunk had used comparable assumptions about discount rates to evaluate the value of a college degree compared to a high school diploma, he would have reached the conclusion that few should go to college. Indeed, given a 30% nominal discount rate, whether it makes financial sense to complete high school might be debatable.”
Undeterred, Professor Schlunk once again relies on unrealistically high discount rates and overlooks differences in completion rates, this time to argue that private non-profit universities provide little value when compared to leanly funded, politically vulnerable public universities. Based on this analysis, he concludes that the federal government should tax universities more heavily than it already does. Higher discount rates mean that future cash flows have a lower present value. Thus the value of a lifetime of higher earnings from higher quality education is diminished by choosing a higher discount rate.
Schlunk’s justification for using such high discount rates is that higher education “puts me in mind of income streams I confronted when advising investors in the private equity sector [where] discount rates of as high as 30% were generally applied.”
For the record, peer reviewed research generally finds that private equity returns net of fees are close to or less than those that can be found in the stock market—not remotely close to the 30 percent returns assumed by Schlunk. (In addition, discount rates are supposed to reflect the weighted average cost of capital, NOT the (higher) returns to equity). If P.E. investors were applying high discount rates to cash flow projections, this likely means that investors believed that P.E. cash flow projections were over-optimistic.
Overlooking college completion rates
In his latest critique of higher education, Schlunk also overlooks large differences in completion rates. Four-year completion rates for bachelor’s degrees are almost twice as high at private non-profit universities as at their more leanly funded public counterparts. If one accepts Schlunk’s assumptions of extremely high discount rates, even a modest delay in completion would have a dramatic impact on value.
Overlooking effects of increased educational expenditures and educational quality
Peer reviewed studies that control for differences in student characteristics consistently find that higher expenditures per student lead to significant increases in student earnings and likely contribute to higher completion rates. (For brief reviews of the literature, see The Knowledge Tax and Populist Outrage, Reckless Empirics; See also here).
Professor Schlunk overlooks these studies.
Mis-measuring student earnings and educational expenditures
Schlunk overestimates the difference in expenditures and resources at elite public and private universities, which leads him to over-estimate the earnings premiums necessary for more resource-intensive private education to be worthwhile. Schlunk assumes incorrectly that all students at elite flagship state universities pay low in-state tuition, when many students at these institutions pay much higher out-of-state or international student tuition. He overlooks the extent to which expenditures per student at elite public universities exceed in-state tuition because of state subsidies and cross-subsidies from out-of-state students. He overlooks the extent to which differences in financial aid affect net-tuition—and therefore educational resources and expenditures—at different universities.
The elite public universities that Schlunk presents as controls that he sees as similar to private universities, but without endowments, actually have larger endowments than many private universities.
April 02, 2017
New York Times Reporter Elizabeth Olson Claims That Professors Earning Less than First Year Associates are Paid like Law Firm Partners (Michael Simkovic)
New York Times reporter Elizabeth Olson recently complained that the Dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Law was suspended after attempting to slash faculty compensation (“Cincinnati Law Dean Is Put on Leave After Proposing Ways to Cut Budget”). According to Olson, “law schools like Cincinnati [pay hefty] six-figure professor salaries that are meant to match partner-level wages.”
Olson goes on to cite the compensation of the current and former Dean of the law school. This makes about as much sense as citing newspaper executive compensation in a discussion about reducing pay for beat reporters.
Data from 2015—the latest readily publicly available—shows that law professors at Cincinnati earned total compensation averaging $133,000. A few professors earned less than six figures. Only one faculty member—a former dean and one of the most senior members of the faculty—earned more than $180,000. Including only Full Professors—the most senior, accomplished faculty members who have obtained tenure and typically have between seven and forty years of work experience—brings average total compensation to $154,000 per year.
As Olson herself reported less than a year ago, first year associates at large law firms earn base salaries of $180,000 per year, not counting substantial bonuses and excellent benefits. With a few years of experience, elite law firm associates’ total compensation including bonus can exceed $300,000. Law firm partners at the largest 200 firms can earn hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per year according to the American Lawyer, and often receive large pensions after retirement.
August 17, 2016
New York Times journalist Elizabeth Olson recently reported that the law school graduating class of 2015--which was very close to the size of the class of 1996--had about the same number of private sector jobs 9 months after graduation as the class of 1996. That's a pretty good outcome considering that the economy-wide employment population ratio in February 2016 was 3.6 points lower than in February 1997. Olson puts a negative spin on the non-story.
UPDATE: Casey Sullivan at Bloomberg provides more balanced coverage, noting the smaller class size at the outset of his story and focusing on overall earnings rather than job counts in one segment of the market.
For previous coverage, see
Timing Law School (forthcoming in JELS)
February 09, 2016
The latest unscientific fad among law school watchers is comparing job openings projections for lawyers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics* with the number of students expected to graduate from law school. Frank McIntyre and I tested this method of predicting earnings premiums--the financial benefits of a law degree--using all of the available historical projections from the BLS going back decades. This method of prediction does not perform any better than random chance.** Labor economists--including those working at the BLS--have explicitly stated that BLS projections should not be used to try to value particular courses of study. Instead, higher education should be valued based on earnings premiums.
Bloggers who report changes in BLS projections and compare projected job openings to the number of students entering law school might as well advise prospective law students to make important life decisions by flipping a coin.
Many law graduates won't practice law. Many engineering graduates won't become engineers. Many students in every field end up working jobs that are not directly related to what they studied. They still typically benefit financially from their degrees by using them in other occupations where additional education boosts earnings and likelihood of employment.
And if one's goal really is to practice law even if practicing law is not more lucrative than other opportunities opened by a law degree, then studying law may not be a guarantee, but it still dramatically improves the odds.
* BLS job opening projections--which are essentially worthless as predictors for higher education--should not be confused with BLS occupational employment statistics, which provide useful data about earnings and employment in many occupations, including for lawyers.
** There isn’t even strong evidence that changes in the ratio between BLS projected lawyer job openings and law class size predict changes in the percent of law graduates who will practice law, although the estimates are too noisy to be definitive. Historically, the ratio of BLS projected openings to law graduates (or first year enrollments 3 years prior) has systematically under-predicted by a wide margin the proportion of law graduates practicing law shortly after graduation, although it is clear that a large minority of law graduates do not practice law.
February 9, 2016 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
December 07, 2015
Blog Emperor Caron appears to think so, though I'm a bit skeptical about his motives: since the "Instapundit" blog run by the right-wing Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds links to each day's posting about the alleged "scandal," the Blog Emperor has another incentive to keep this "hits" cow going! But what do readers think? We'll settle this scientifically:
UPDATE: Prior to the invasion of the Insta-ignorance readers, the normal intelligent readership was 30% in favor of the scandal-mongering, the rest against with about one quarter deeming the Blog Emperor's continued coverage the real scandal.
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.