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.[1]   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.[2] 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,[3] the American Bar Foundation, and NALP.  Unlike “Law School Transparency”, these non-profits actually are transparent about their own sources and uses of funds.

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December 20, 2019 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Student Advice, Weblogs | Permalink

Puff piece on "Law School Transparency" at Bloomberg Law

This is pretty thin.  I spoke to the reporter for a half hour, pointing out that the key turning point for transparency was when the ABA mandated better reporting of emplyment data by schools after getting pressure from Senators Boxer and Coburn back in 2010-11.   None of these facts made it into the article, because the reporter had already decided, I guess, to do a puff piece on LST (which, to be honest, I didn't realize still existed until she called me).   The reporter was puzzled that law school Deans say almost nothing about LST; I pointed out the obvious reason:  because it's irrelevant, in a way the ABA is not.

(The last I recall hearing about LST was when they tried to "shakedown" law schools back in 2013.)

 

 

December 20, 2019 in Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest | Permalink

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Other things to think about if you have multiple tenure track offers (Michael Simkovic)

Brian Leiter has an extremely helpful post about things that entry level candidates should think about when they receive a tenure track offer.  The post below is meant to supplement Brian’s post with additional considerations that are relevant to candidates who are fortunate enough to receive multiple tenure track offers.  It may also be of interest to tenured faculty who have offers to lateral to another institution, and to those deciding between a research faculty position and an outside option such as private practice or public service. 

The institution where you start your academic career as a faculty member is most likely where you will end it, if you are fortunate enough to earn tenure.  Only around 1 to 2 percent of tenured law faculty members per year move between institutions.[1]  It is also relatively rare for academics to return to the full-time practice of law after years in the academy.  Every job move is a high-stakes decision, because every move will most likely be your last.

Summary:

  • Check the Institution’s Financial Condition and Creditworthiness
  • Consider the Institution’s Commitment to Research
  • Consider the Institution’s Competitive Position
  • Consider your Colleagues
  • Consider both the Cost & Quality of Living
  • Consider the Ease of Expected Travel

 

Check the Institution’s Financial Condition and Creditworthiness

Tenure is not an iron clad guarantee of future employment.  Tenure is only as good as the financial strength of the educational institution that stands behind it. Moreover, important considerations like research funding and the availability of raises (or even COLAs) are likely to be a function of the financial position of the institution as well as your own performance.

There are two helpful external sources you can consult:

  • credit rating agencies such as Moody’s, S&P, and/or Fitch,[2]and
  • market-based indictors like bond yield spreads for universities that have debt.

Note that credit ratings will likely be of the university as a whole, not specifically of the law school (bond spreads may reference the university as well), but this is nevertheless useful because the financial strength of the overall university often affects its law school, particularly when either the law school or the university experiences a downturn.

Credit ratings do not track U.S. News rankings as closely as you might expect.[3]  In addition to providing important information about an institution’s overall credit rating, rating agencies’ reports will discuss risk factors such as a disproportionately large share of revenue coming from a single line of business, demographic changes in the region, or competition from other universities.

You should also be mindful of the impact that state and local government politics can have on public institutions and on private institutions that either depend on public institutions as feeder schools or compete with them for students to attend graduate programs.

In some states, public institutions have good relationships with both political parties.  In others, one or both political parties may be planning to cut education funding per student.  Figure out the lay of the land before you move across the country.

The institution’s creditworthiness is also relevant to your retirement savings options. Many universities offer deferred compensation arrangements which enable employees to effectively double their tax-advantaged retirement savings compared to a 403(b) plan alone.  These savings plans permit employees to select investments like a 403(b) or 401(k).  However, unlike a 403(b) or 401(k), deferred compensation plans do not provide for a segregated pool of assets that individual employees own.  Instead, employees who defer their compensation become general unsecured creditors of the university and are owed the account balance.  Other creditors would have claims on the same assets if the university were to become insolvent, and not everyone would be paid in full.

To fully take advantage of these retirement savings options as a young professor, you need to be confident that your university will remain creditworthy for the next 50 to 60 years.

Similarly, some public universities offer defined benefit pensions, but the value of these promises depends on how well-funded the pension is and the financial strength of the state government and/or university system.  States routinely underfund their public pensions.  States and municipalities facing inadequate revenues—typically because of limited political appetite for tax increases or concerns about mobility of taxpayers—have in the past restructured their pensions to make benefits less generous, and may do so again in the future. 

The public pension you are promised may only be worth some number of cents on the dollar, with the number of cents depending on which state you happen to be located in.

You can also consult publicly available financial reports for the university and, if available, for the law school going back five to ten years.  You may also be able to obtain information about the financial condition of the law school by asking the dean questions such as what the endowment is, debt and asset levels, how much “tax” the law school pays to the central university, what kind of support the law school enjoys from the central administration, etc.  However, be aware that Deans, like CEOs, are frequently optimistic in their views of the institutions they run.

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December 17, 2019 in Advice for Academic Job Seekers, Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Professional Advice | Permalink

Friday, December 13, 2019

Reforming publication in the student-edited law reviews

Professor Brian Galle (Georgetown) shares a draft proposal from the AALS Section on Scholarship.  The current system is a disaster and absurd, so I hope some version of this gets traction.

December 13, 2019 in Faculty News, Of Academic Interest | Permalink

Thursday, December 12, 2019

What do you need to find out now that you've gotten a tenure-track offer?

MOVING TO FRONT FROM NOVEMBER 5, 2019 (ORIGINALLY POSTED NOVEMBER 24, 2009--I HAVE UPDATED CERTAIN NUMBERS)--SEE ALSO THE COMMENTS, WHICH HAVE HELPFUL ADDITIONAL SUGGESTIONS

With luck, some of you seeking law teaching jobs will get offers of tenure-track positions in the next couple of months; a handful of offers have already been extended this season (2019-20).  What then?  Here's roughly what I tell the Chicago job candidates we work with that they need to find out, and in the interest of having it written down in one place and for the benefit of others too, here it is (not in order of importance):

1.  You will want to get (in writing eventually) the basic salary information, obviously, and the nature of summer research support and the criteria for its award (is it automatic for junior faculty?  contingent on prior publication [if so, how much?]?  awarded competitively (if so, based on what criteria/process)?).   You should also find out how salary raises are determined.  Are they, for example, lock-step for junior faculty?  Fixed by union contract?  (Rutgers faculty, for example, are unionized, a huge advantage and why they are among the best-paid faculty, not just in law, in the country.)  Is it a 'merit' system, and if so is it decanal discretion or is their a faculty committee that reviews your teaching and work each year?

2.  You should ask for a copy of the school's tenure standards and get clear about the expectations and the timeline.  Does any work you have already published count towards meeting the tenure standard?

3.  What research leave policy, if any, does the school have?  A term off after every three full years of teaching is a very good leave policy; some schools have even better policies, most have less generous leave policies.  (If there is a norm, it is a term off after every six years.)  Many schools have a special leave policy for junior faculty, designed to give them some time off prior to the tenure decision.  Find out if the school has such a policy.

4.  One of the most important things to be clear about is not just your teaching load, but what courses you will be teaching precisely.  You should ask whether the school can guarantee a stable set of courses until after the tenure decision.  Preparing new courses is hugely time-consuming, and you also get better at teaching the course the more times you do it.  As a tenure-track faculty member, having a stable package of, say, three courses (plus a seminar) will make a huge difference in terms of your ability to conduct research and write.   In my experience, most schools will commit in writing to a set of courses for the tenure-track years (and do ask for this in writing), but some schools either won't or can't.   In my view, it's a good reason to prefer one school to another that one will give you the courses you want and promise them that they're yours, while another won't--a consideration that overrides lots of other factors, including salary.

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December 12, 2019 in Advice for Academic Job Seekers | Permalink | Comments (14)

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

On filling out the USNEWS.com "peer assessment" (i.e., academic reputation) survey

A young legal scholar elsewhere writes:

I'm my faculty's most recently tenured member, so I got a US News peer assessment survey. Or, I should say, peer "assessment," since it doesn't actually ask for any assessment of anything. I knew that the methodology was shoddy for these things, but I'm still kind of shocked at what this is: just a list of all the law schools and a request to rate them on a 5 point scale. No faculty or publications or any information about them. It's just a test of what schools I happen to have heard good things about lately.

 

So, given that this survey cannot produce any credible measure of quality or anything else (except of who I happen to have heard good things about lately), what should I do? Should I simply ignore this nonsense? Or is there some penalty (to me? to others?) if people who recognize this as nonsense refuse to participate? Should I rank everyone outstanding? Everyone except the top twenty schools?

A few observations and suggestions: 

(1)  any recently tenured faculty member (and that certainly goes for this young scholar) will, in fact, know a fair bit about the quality of scholarship (at least in his or her fields, and often cognate fields) at anywhere from a dozen to several dozen law schools.   Evaluate those schools, being either generous or stingy with the scores as you see fit:  e.g., give just five or six schools a "5," or give two dozen schools a "5."  In general, I think evaluators should be generous, especially since higher scores will have more influence on the overall results:  avoid 1s and 2s (unless you really are confident in the weakness of a particular school), and there's no  harm in giving lots of 4s and 3s.  (In the past, USNEWS.COM used to drop a percentage of the highest and lowest scores as a check on strategic voting, I'm not sure if they still do that.)   Most importantly, when you "don't know" much about a school, choose "don't know."  "Don't know" does not count against (or for) a school.

(2)  The academic reputation survey is, in fact, one of the few "reality checks" in the whole USNEWS.com charade:  without it, the rankings would be based on nothing more than wealth and the extent to which schools "massage" the self-reported data like employment statistics and expenditures.  Unfortunately, the academic reputation surveys increasingly track the prior years' overall rank in USNEWS.com, which impedes its utility as a reality check.  (This is one reason why adding citation data would, if done rightly, be salutary.)   But evaluators can counteract that by actually thinking about (1) the quality of scholarship produced by a school's faculty (not the school's name!), and (2) looking at other data as a check on their impressions. 

Here's a suggestion:  everyone should give the University of San Diego at least a "4" this year in the peer assessment survey, since its overall USNEWS.com rank is preposterously low relative to the strength of the faculty (which is made up of folks who have had tenured positions or offers at lots of excellent schools, including Berkeley, Northwestern, Cornell, Minnesota, George Washington, Boston University, and elsewhere).  If this works, I'll nominate more schools in future years who deserve a boost for their faculty excellence, even as they are punished by USNEWS.com on other metrics.

December 10, 2019 in Professional Advice, Rankings | Permalink

Monday, December 9, 2019

Wealthy Penn Law alumnus protests treatment of Amy Wax

He's partly right, and partly very wrong and confused about academic freedom.  He's correct that it is part of the Kalven Report's vision of the university that it is not the job of administrators to take sides on substantive questions addressed by faculty; this is why I objected to Dean Ruger's criticism of Professor Wax's (admittedly idiotic and insulting) statements about immigration.   (I get to express my opinion because I'm not her Dean or Provost etc.)    However, it's absurd to think that "academic freedom" protects a faculty member's right to denigrate the competence of an identifiable segment of the student body at her school, as Professor Wax did.  Professor Wax, like any faculty member, is free to dispute the merits of affirmative action in admissions; she is not free, however, to disclose the academic performance of her students.  As I noted at the time, Dean Ruger's sanction (removing Professor Wax from a mandatory 1L course) was a mild one; he would have been justified in adopting more severe sanctions.  Given this alum's confused understanding of academic freedom (not to mention student privacy), it is probably just as well he is no longer involved in university governance.

December 9, 2019 in Faculty News, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice | Permalink

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Nobel Prize winners explain how ideology/theory blinded economics (Michael Simkovic)

The Financial Times recently published an excellent profile of Esther Duflo, a French economist who shared the Nobel Prize in Economics with two of her co-authors for pioneering empirical work using field experiments (randomized controlled trials) to evaluate the effectiveness of social policies and the effects of taxation.  Over the last several decades, economics has evolved from a largely theoretical field, which from the 1960s to 1980s at times resembled conservative political assumptions restated in mathematical formulae (see, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), into a largely empirical field more akin to science.  Law & Economics has followed, albeit more slowly.

From the FT:

“Duflo’s drive to spread the use of RCTs reflects her original motivation for entering economics — a deep-seated belief that research can influence policy. . . .

 

Duflo believes her research on what drives behaviour in poor countries carries important lessons for governments in the rich world. She also believes strongly that economists need to speak out more — if people distrust experts, it is partly because the best academics, wary of being misinterpreted, are leaving the field to ideologues and pundits.

 

Duflo and [her co-author] Banerjee contend that, in reality, people do not necessarily move to the best jobs, or invest in the most productive businesses; nor is there any evidence they work less in response to higher taxes. They care about many things — health, self-respect, clean air — more than they do about maximizing per capita GDP, an elusive goal that may no longer be the right priority for policymakers in the developed world. . . .     For her, the priorities in the US would include . . . a huge investment in early-years education, to create high-status jobs ‘that no robot is ever going to come to take’.

 

Duflo believes that an excessive faith in financial incentives is one of the big things mainstream economics got wrong. ‘You can see the long shadow of that misconception in our thinking on trade, in our thinking on taxation . . . in our thinking on social programmes.’

 

Although a reassessment is now under way, Duflo is critical of her profession’s reluctance to accept evidence that did not fit with accepted theories. She cites the example of Petia Topalova, an IMF economist whose early work at MIT showed poverty reduction was slower in areas of India that were more exposed to trade. Topalova’s conclusion — on the need to compensate losers from globalization — now seems self-evident. At the time, however, her paper was greeted with near-universal scorn — and she was forced to seek a career outside academia.

 

‘I wish I could say for sure that something like that would not happen again, but it might, with another blind spot,’ Duflo says. This failure on the part of economists to question their assumptions reflected cultural problems . . .

 

Duflo’s main message, though, is that economists — for all their flaws — have something to contribute.  ‘A focus on the right policies can make an enormous amount of progress. When I feel low, that’s what I think about.’ ”

December 5, 2019 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Of Academic Interest, Science | Permalink

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Jonathan Turley (George Washington) is not "the second-most cited law professor in the country"...

as The New York Times misleadingly reports today; indeed, he's not even one of the ten-most cited members of the GW law faculty.   On Professor Turley's website (the source for the NYT claim), the context was clearer:  in Judge Posner's 2003 book Public Intellectuals, Turley was the second-most cited law professor due almost entirely to references to him in the media.  On the other hand, he is poised to soon displace Alan Dershowitz as the "most-cited law professor by Donald Trump"!

UPDATE:  This is not atypical of the reception accorded Professor Turley's performance today.

December 4, 2019 in Faculty News, Rankings | Permalink

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Cracks in the Section 230 firewall for Internet service providers

This is good news for those of us who think Section 230 is an unmitigated disaster, responsible for the currently depraved state of cyberspace.

December 3, 2019 in Of Academic Interest | Permalink