Friday, December 20, 2019
“Law School Transparency” is misleading its customers about the cost of law school and overcharging for data that are available for free (Michael Simkovic)
Brian Leiter recently noted problems with Elizabeth Olson’s uncritical coverage of “Law School Transparency” (LST) in an article published in Bloomberg.
The most important substantive problems with Olson’s recent article about LST not already mentioned by Professor Leiter are that: (1) Olson doesn’t mention that LST’s business model is repackaging and selling to prospective law students data that are readily available from the ABA for free and are available in more reliable form from U.S. News for less than half the price; and (2) Olson doesn’t mention that LST’s analysis of ABA data is deeply flawed, biased against law school attendance, and at a minimum highly controversial.
The clearest example of problems with LST’s analysis is the expected amount of debt after graduation—a point where other data sources are readily available and LST’s claims can be checked.
Law School Transparency routinely suggests that law students will graduate law school with two to five times as much debt as suggested by more credible sources like the ABA, U.S. News, the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, and student lenders. The overwhelming majority of credible sources suggest that law graduates typically complete law school with around $90,000 to $150,000 in debt. U.S. News reports a range a from $51,000 to $213,000 across the law schools it covers. By contrast, LST’s most prominently displayed expected debt after graduation figure averages a much higher $260,000, and ranges from $130,000 to $390,000.
LST reports its overstated cost figure prominently as the “non-discounted cost” of law school or the "full debt-financed cost of attendance." For example, according to U.S. News, Rutgers graduates typically graduate with $56,000 in debt for those who have debt and 16% have no debt at graduation. But according to LST, Rutgers graduates face a “non-discounted cost” more than four times higher—$230,000—and a “full debt-financed cost of attendance” as much as five times higher—between $229,000 and $278,000. Even with median grant amounts and in-state tuition, LST estimates that Rutgers graduates will have $175,000 in debt at graduation—3.5 times as much as U.S. News’s data.
U.S. News reports that Stanford law graduates complete their degrees with around $132,000 in debt. A full 36 percent of Stanford students graduate with no debt. But according to LST, the “full debt-financed cost of attendance” and “non-discounted cost of attendance” at Stanford are both 3 times higher at $390,000.
Real data on the actual costs of law school are readily available for free from the ABA, which reports tuition and fees and typical scholarship amounts. U.S. News’s premium product, “Grad Compass” provides better (albeit imperfect) coverage of law schools than LST, also offers information on other graduate programs, and costs less than half as much as LST’s product.
How does LST arrive at debt estimates that are so much higher than the actual data? By making outlandish assumptions that are all biased in the direction of finding a higher debt amount / higher total cost of law school, including assuming:
- Law students never work during law school or in the summers between their years of law school, even though almost all law students do
- Students never live at home or with relatives during law school or find ways to reduce expected living costs below estimates provided by law schools, even though many students do;
- (NOTE: estimated expenses provided by educational institutions are used in conjunction with tuition and fees to set maximum borrowing limits for federal student loans, and may therefore be set toward the high end of the range of students needs to avoid forcing students and lower income families with limited access to credit to borrow from higher cost sources)
- Students never pay down any of their debt or even the interest on their debt while they are in school, even though many students do
- Students and their families never use resources other than federal student loans to finance their degrees even when lower costs of capital are available elsewhere, even though many students do
- Students (by default) are assumed to receive no scholarship money, even though at many law schools half or more students do
LST’s paid product, which costs $75, provides some additional services, but these are generally available for free elsewhere. Some of these services, such as a push-poll disguised as a personality-assessment, appear to be of such low quality that they may have negative value.
Additional services include:
- an LSAT guide.
LST offers an LSAT guide from a company that is relatively new and has limited market share. Free LSAT practice tests are available directly from LSAC, which creates, administers and scores the LSAT. Free exams are also available from several well-established LSAT test prep companies. LSAC sells an official guidebook for $8 and has a lot of free information on its website. Khan academy also offers free LSAT prep.
- A prediction of likelihood of admission
LST’s paid product also provide a prediction of the likelihood of admission to law school, conditional on getting certain test scores and grades. However, LSAT offers a similar service for free. The ABA data includes information on the range of test scores and GPA of admitted students at each law school in each year. It’s unclear from the website how or if LST’s product improves on these free resources.
- An unscientific personality assessment featuring questionable privacy protections, dubious claims, and push polling
LST also offers a third-party personality assessment to determine whether you are suited to be lawyer. However, attempting to navigate to the website of the company providing this service (a Nevada LLC) raises a warning from my web browser that the website is not secure and my data could be stolen. Perusing the terms of service does not provide reassurance about privacy protections.
The website is unclear about how, or whether, the personality assessment was scientifically validated. It appears to be based on comparing the responses to survey questions of a non-random, non-representative sample of lawyers and non-lawyers to the profiles of prospective law students who are years younger, without any longitudinal evaluation of subsequent outcomes. To the best of my knowledge this is not a scientifically accepted method for validating a psychometric instrument as a predictor of career satisfaction or success later in life. There’s a link to a white paper, but it’s a sloppy thrown together jumble based on blog posts, and it is not peer reviewed. In what appears to be a bit of push-polling against law school attendance the white paper claims that signs that you’d be a good lawyer include a lack of empathy, a lack of initiative, a lack of resiliency, a lack of sociability and a lack of creativity—basically being a lump of coal.
Actual peer reviewed studies have found that success as a lawyer is associated with more positive personality traits like contentment, self-confidence, openness, competence, maturity, good situational judgment, a wide range of cultural interests and relative freedom from irritability and hostility and dispositional optimism.
Peer reviewed research has also found that the overwhelming majority of law graduates do not regret their decision to attend law school. By contrast, LST’s website claims that “Nearly 50% of all lawyers wouldn't enter the profession if they had it to do over.” LST provides no source for this claim and no explanation of the methods used to reach it. (LSAC also offers a free fun quiz, but has no pretensions about scientific validity).
The ABF, NALP and other groups sponsored a study of career satisfaction, debt, and earnings called After the JD (which has 3 waves) and may offer more helpful information than anything LST provides.
Free or inexpensive information for prospective law students is available from well-established non-profits like LSAC, the AccessLex Institute, the American Bar Foundation, and NALP. Unlike “Law School Transparency”, these non-profits actually are transparent about their own sources and uses of funds.My favorite part of LST’s tools is the visualizations, which are colorful and eye catching, albeit a bit too busy to be readily digestible. However, style can’t make up for substantive problems—and indeed, may make them worse by hiding problems—and style certainly does not justify the $75 price tag.
Returning to Bloomberg’s coverage, Olson’s article does not mention that allegations of law school fraud amplified by LST were vigorously litigated and repeatedly dismissed by multiple courts of law, which undermines the credibility of LST’s critique. Olson, writing in Bloomberg, also does not mention that LST’s executive director, Kyle McEntee, served as a contributor to Bloomberg.
The bottom line is that reporters covering LST should introduce it as an anti-law school advocacy group, note the murky and opaque nature of its sources of funding, and note that it charges its customers excessively for information that is available elsewhere, in more reliable and less biased form, for free.
There are larger, better established, and more transparent non-profits that provide information about legal education and are better sources of information than LST. It is unclear what value, if any, LST provides beyond its willingness to advance bold and often unsubstantiated claims.
According to data from After the JD, shortly after law school graduation, those who graduated in 2000 and who had debt (16% did not have any debt) had a median amount of debt of $70,000 in 2002-2003, which in today’s dollars comes to around $97,600. This median debt amount among those with debt rapidly fell over the next 4 and 8 years as graduates gained experience and saw pay increases, while the percent of graduates with no debt rapidly increased. Although tuition and costs of living have increased since then, scholarship amounts and billable rates for lawyers have also increased and interest rates have fallen.
Other data suggests that increases in law school debt have been modest. U.S. News finds law school debt at graduation in recent years in the $50,000 to $150,000 range. Data from the ABA from 2012 suggested an average amount borrowed in the $85,000 to $122,000 range (around $96,000 to $139,000 in today’s dollars). Reports from student lenders suggest similar figures. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that law students in 2016 had combined undergraduate and law school debt of around $145,000, and that bachelor’s typically had debt around $30,000, implying that around $115,000 of debt was due to law school (around $125,000 in today’s dollars).
Technically, costs of living are not a cost of attending law school because students would typically need food and shelter and healthcare whether they were in law school or not. Only unavoidable changes to cost of living due to law school could potentially be considered a cost of law school. However, with 200 ABA approved law schools, most prospective students have a wide variety of options regarding the location they will live in while they attend law school, including options close to home. Cost of living might actually go down, as students tend to spend less money than those who are working.
Beyond tuition and fees, the only cost of law school is the opportunity cost of foregone earnings from working less while in school. This opportunity cost varies for each student and depends on how much the student works while he or she is in school (and how lucrative his or her position is) and what his or her outside opportunities would have been during law school. For a student who would have been marginally employed if he or she did not attend law school, but who works as a summer associate at a law firm each summer, the opportunity costs of attending law school may be zero or even negative.
 Disclosure: The author of this article has previously received research funding from LSAC and AccessLex Institute. This article was not funded by any grant.
 While this probably does not rise to the level of a serious conflict of interest, it would probably have been best practice to note Mr. McEntee’s prior relationship with Bloomberg to help contextualize the uncritical coverage of LST and the omission of any mention of LST’s competition in the form of free information from the ABA, less expensive information from U.S. News, and free information from better known, larger, more transparent, and more established non-profits.