Saturday, July 21, 2018

Northwestern Lecturer Mark A. Cohen’s Angry Outburst on Twitter (Michael Simkovic)

I recently pointed out some factual problems with claims by Northwestern lecturer Mark A. Cohen.  Cohen, writing in Forbes, claimed that faculty terminations at Vermont Law School were proof that student debt was unsustainable, not only at Vermont, but at all law schools except for a handful of elite institutions. 

Here’s the problem: When student debt levels are unsustainable, student default rates are high.  But at Vermont--and at most law schools--default rates are low.[1] 

When Professor David Herzig pointed out some of the relevant literature to Mr. Cohen, Cohen responded with the following angry outburst on twitter:

That "evidence" has been panned by every credible source I know. The methodology and premises upon which the conclusions were drawn are laughable and fly in the face of real studies. I was a bet-the-company trial lawyer for many years--the "study" you cite is 3rd rate fiction.”

Low student loan defaults for law graduates are consistent with the peer reviewed literature, such as The Economic Value of a Law Degree (final version here), Timing Law School (final version here), and related work by me and Frank McIntyre about the value of legal education.  Law degrees generally provide benefits that are substantially greater than their costs, even toward the low end of the distribution, across race (final version here), sex and college major, both before and after the financial crisis, and including those who graduate during a recession.  More than the top 75 percent of law graduates are getting good value relative to a terminal bachelor’s degree.[2]

Strong student loan performance is also consistent with the After the JD study (compare waves I, II, and especially III), which showed rapid income growth for graduates of even low ranked ABA-approved law schools, and eventually, six-figure median full-time incomes. 

Law students’ low default rates have featured in the business strategies of many student lenders, who are eager to refinance law student debt for interest rates substantially below those offered by the federal government.

Professor Herzig asked Mr. Cohen to be more specific about his sources and objections.

Mr. Cohen has yet to specify what he believes is wrong with the methodology in the studies—which were authored with a PhD labor economist, peer reviewed and carefully vetted, use high quality government data, use mainstream methods and assumptions that are well established in labor economics, and include sensitivity analyses and robustness checks.  The results have been replicated by other researchers.

Mr. Cohen also has yet to specify which “real studies” he thinks use better data and more widely accepted methods, and why.  He has yet to explain how his litigation experience qualifies him as a labor economist, statistician, and literary critic.  Or why, as a seasoned litigator, he thinks so many of the lawsuits against law schools have been dismissed.

Nevertheless, Mr. Cohen asks an interesting question: why have law school applications declined even though law school is a good value?  First, it should be noted that law school applications are now increasing nationally.  But there’s no evidence that either increases or decreases in law school applications accurately predict changes in the value of legal education.

With those caveats in mind, the question of what caused the decline starting in 2010-2011 is a good one.  The drivers of law school applicant numbers are not well understood, but one contributing factor might be a flood of negative press coverage starting that year in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune among others.  Although the coverage was often inaccurate, anecdotal, and contrary to the data, it was left uncorrected for too long.[3] 

The press mistook a recession that reduced employment rates and incomes across the board—but left the relative advantages of a law degree intact—for a law-specific problem.  Relevant knowledge, expertise, and numeracy are unfortunately not pre-requisites to obtaining column inches in a newspaper.  Fact checking often gets short shrift, and journalists and editors are extremely reluctant to post corrections when they make mistakes.  Law schools were too slow and too divided to respond effectively.  The AALS was not as focused on improving media accuracy as it should have been.

Although far more information is available today than in 2010-2013, Mr. Cohen apparently overlooked the literature and repeated many of the same mistakes.  If Mr. Cohen has serious, well-reasoned, substantive critiques of the peer reviewed literature to which I and others have not responded already (see my contributions to Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports from 2013 forward), I would be delighted to hear them.  If not, Cohen should acknowledge his mistakes, print a correction in Forbes, and move on.


[1] Vermont Law School's 3-year cohort default rates over the last 3 years available (classes of 2012-2014) are between 0.3 and 1.2 percent, while the national average cohort default rate across educational institutions is close to 11.5 percent.  Nor are Vermont graduates defaulting in large numbers on their Perkins loans, which are not eligible for Income Based Repayment with debt forgiveness.

[2] There are approximately 200 ABA approved law schools and roughly another 30 that are not ABA approved. 

[3] See, e.g.,

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