Friday, 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.