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.
March 12, 2019
White House proposes to spend approximately nothing on early childhood education to minimize taxes for top 0.1 percent (Michael Simkovic)
NPR reports that the Trump administration has proposed a meager one-time increase in funding for childcare / early career eduction equal to approximately 0.0045 percent of GDP ($1 billion out of $22 trillion estimated 2020 GDP) or about 0.001 percent of household networth. Total federal spending would increase to $5.4 billion, or 0.0225 percent of GDP.
In contrast, Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed to spend approximately $70 billion per year on childcare and early childhood education--13 times as much as President Trump. Warren's plan would be financed with approximately one third of the revenue generated by an annual ultra-high net-worth wealth tax of 2 percent on personal fortunes above $50 million, and 3 percent above $1 billion. It would therefore cost 99.9 percent of households nothing in increased tax burdens.
The White House explained that its less generous proposal was motivated by a desire to avoid spending "unsustainable amounts of taxpayer dollars" and instead come up with a plan that would be (politically) "viable."
March 08, 2019
How Big Tobacco’s star advocate became an education expert for the New York Times and Forbes (Michael Simkovic)
Richard Vedder, a leading opponent of excise taxes on cigarettes, takes a dim view of most of higher education. Vedder depicts colleges and universities as overpriced, wasteful, and deserving budget cuts. Vedder argues that academic freedom and research impede teaching marketable skills.
The reality is that public investments in higher education more than pay for themselves. More spending is linked to more innovation and better labor market outcomes. Educational quality and access have improved over time. The economy would likely grow faster if governments invested more in education. More people would find jobs, they would earn more money, and governments’ long-term fiscal position would likely improve.
Vedder would be easy to dismiss if not for his backing from industries that spend heavily on advertising and lobbying—like tobacco, for-profit education, and private student lending. Vedder has become a regular contributor to the New York Times, Forbes, and other publications with wide circulation, and frequently testifies before Congress.
Despite his general antipathy to education, Vedder forcefully defends for-profit education. Vedder likes that for-profit institutions have little interest in “promoting research, saving the earth [or] achieving progressive objectives.” Perhaps harried adjuncts are less likely than tenured research faculty to assess whether taxing cigarettes saves lives.
Public health spillovers aside, for-profit education is typically not great for students or taxpayers.
For-profit institutions spend far more of their revenue on sales and marketing and far less on instruction. For-profits account for a disproportionate share of federal student loan defaults and federal subsidies. Although for-profits typically serve weaker students, after accounting for student characteristics, for profits typically provide less value for the money than non-profit and public competitors. For-profits are the only type of educational institution which have been shown to increase tuition after gaining access to federal student loans, without increasing quality. Many for-profits have been linked to consumer fraud.
March 07, 2019
Inside Higher Education reports that along with an executive order that would politicize federal funding for higher education and scientific research, President Trump may soon unveil a "risk sharing" plan to tax higher education institutions that accept federal student loans. As I noted previously, when Senator (and former Democratic Presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton proposed a similar plan, such proposals are little more than a covert way of raising taxes on educational institutions and pressuring colleges into pushing students into borrowing using higher cost private student loans.
We do not expect home builders or auto-manufacturers to pay when home buyers or car buyers default on their loans--even government backed mortgages--and there is no good reason to impose similar penalties on colleges and universities, especially given how much of the financial benefit of education flows to the federal government as higher tax revenues and lower disability and unemployment benefits costs rather than as student loan repayments.
Under symmetric risk sharing, including upside as well as downside, the federal government would be paying universities more, not less.
March 02, 2019
President Trump uses scuffle at Berkeley as pretext to pressure universities into promoting views he endorses (Michael Simkovic)
A recruiter for a far-right group that maintains a "Professor Watchlist" was recently punched in the face while using slogans about "hate crime hoaxes" to recruit (or perhaps to intentionally provoke an incident) at the University of California Berkeley.
The FBI and Department of Education have both found that serious (at times deadly) hate crimes against racial, ethnic and religious minorities on campus have increased since President Trump took office and a group of conservative billionaires began funding efforts to depict universities as hostile to racially charged "free speech."
The New York Times has reported that neither the recruiter for the conservative organization nor the alleged perpetrator are students or employees of the University of California.
In spite of the minimal connection to the University--which responded professionally, condemned the attack, and worked with the police to arrest a suspect--President Trump and other conservative activists have expressed intent to use the incident as a pretext to threaten universities with cuts to federal funding unless universities do more to promote conservative views on campus.
UPDATE 3/4/2019: An advocacy group that works to protect academic freedom from efforts to politicize universities has prepared an online form to help those who wish to email their Senators to ask them to block President Trump's Executive Order.
UPDATE 3/6/2019: The AAUP opposes the executive order and has prepared an open letter that interested parties can sign here.
UPDATE 3/7/2019: The President of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmmer, the former dean of Yale law school, Robert Post, and Professors Geoffrey R. Stone, Catherine J. Ross, and Noah Feldman have all spoken out against the proposed executive order. Teri Kanefield has published an interesting analysis of the proposal at CNN, linking it to Global Warming Denial and White Supremacy.
A Washington Post Editorial warns that the proposal violates conservative values, undermines conservatives' credibility and, if enacted, would create a bureaucracy that could be turned against religious institutions when Democrats retake the White House. And editorial in the conservative Washington Examiner makes a similar point about the relationship between academic freedom and religious freedom from government interference.
FIRE, a conservative advocacy organization which defends controversial speakers, is waiting for more details before expressing an official view on the proposal. However, individuals affiliated with FIRE have endorsed it.
Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in Forbes, is strongly in favor of the proposal, arguing that federal funding for scientific research through the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation should be subjected to ideological litmus tests as a form of "quality control." AEI does not explain the connection between the quality of university research teams working on better treatments for cancer or technologies to keep U.S. military personnel and civilians safe and the extent to which undergraduate student groups on campus choose to provide a platform for Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter's views on sex. Nor does he express any of conservatives' usual skepticism of top down government control.
In an essay defending Trump's proposed executive order in Inside Higher Education, Hess misunderstands a survey by FIRE of "self-censorship" by students on campus, which found that 54% of students say they sometimes pause before speaking every thought that occurs to them. The leading reasons students "self-censor," according to the survey, are because they believe they might be wrong and are concerned about their peers judging them. Students were not concerned about any formal sanction from the university for deviating from an approved ideology, but rather were worried that if they appeared foolish in public, they might lose social status with their peers. Some students also point to tact, empathy, and basic norms of decency as reasons to choose their words wisely. The same survey found that "Almost all students (92%) agree that it is important to be part of a campus community where they are exposed to the ideas and opinions of other students" and that "(87%) feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions in their college classrooms." This is not strong evidence of problems on campus. Hess also incongruously cites the AAUP, which (as noted above and below) unequivocally opposes federal regulation such as Trump's proposed executive order that would strip universities of autonomy.
Adam Kissel, formerly at the Koch Foundation, FIRE, and the the Department of Education, is only slightly less enthusiastic in his support for Trump's proposed executive order. Writing in the National Review, Kissel argues that although in an ideal world the federal government would spend nothing funding scientific research, conservatives would be justified politicizing federal research funding as retaliation for liberal efforts to deny federal research funding to principal investigators who engage in sexual harassment, inadequate due process for those accused of sexual harassment on campus, overly burdensome internal review boards that are established to ensure that scientific research does not unethically harm human test subjects, and campus speech codes meant to prevent harassment and emotional abuse. Kissel argues that conservative control of universities should be enforced through courts rather than an administrative agency to ensure that conservative advocacy groups continue to have influence even if Democrats take control of the White House.
February 23, 2019
A fascinating, albeit intemperate and sensationalist, perspective on the history of conservative activism on college campuses is available here.
The essay discusses strategies such as top-down national campaigns funded by wealthy donors, programming crafted by national organizations staffed by well compensated and experienced political operatives with ties to the Republican party, and executed on particular campuses by (sometimes less than fully autonomous) local campus chapters with substantial assistance from national organizations. Many of the campaigns featured subtle exploitation of racial anxieties, appeals to anger, and intentional efforts to upset political opponents so that their reactions can be recorded and used for propaganda purposes.
As previously reported, and confirmed by numerous press stories and leaked documents (see e.g., here and here) many of these strategies continue to be used on campus by many of the same or similar conservative organizations today.
Unfortunately, the essay counter-productively uses militant language to encourage students to "combat" these "threats." Physical violence is both morally wrong and strategically ineffective: it only affirms conservative activists' narrative of victimization. Indeed, a conservative activist group recently scored a major public relations victory after a campus recruiter from a national organization tabling at Berkeley was struck in the face by a passerby who may have been offended by the organization's racially charged slogans about "hate crime hoaxes." This particular conservative group has been accused by rival conservatives of allegedly condoning racism and sexual assault, and criticized for maintaining a McCarthyist Professor Watchlist.
February 20, 2019
Should law schools be penalized for admitting students from wealthy families who are not motivated to work? (Michael Simkovic)
Scott F. Norberg argues for a law school accreditation standard tied to student employment outcomes. The proposal is interesting, and may have some advantages over a standard tied to bar passage rates, for example because it does not give state bars--who can make the bar exam more or less challenging and have incentives to strengthen barriers to entry--excessive control over access to legal education. However, there are several potential concerns.
Employment is systematically higher among certain demographic groups across education levels for reasons that have little to do with value added by law school. An employment-outcomes based standard could encourage law schools to focus on admitting groups with higher expected employment.
February 01, 2019
Brian Leiter and Paul Caron both recently noted a study by Adam Chilton, Jonathan Masur, and Kyle Rozema which argues that law schools can increase average faculty productivity by making it harder for tenure track faculty to get tenure. While this seems plausible, denying tenure more often is no free lunch.
A highly regarded study by Ron Ehrenberg (published in the Review of Economics and Statistics) found that professors place a high monetary value on tenure, and a university that unilaterally eliminated tenure would either have to pay more in salary and bonus or suffer a loss in faculty quality. After controlling for faculty quality, university rank, and cost of living, university economics departments that are less likely to offer faculty tenure must pay untenured faculty more, in part to compensate for increased risk. Reduced tenure rates is associated with higher productivity, but it is costly.
It's easy to understand why. A promising candidate with offers from otherwise comparable universities A and B would be unlikely to take an offer from A knowing that A denies tenure 70 percent of the time while B only denies tenure 10 percent of the time.
Faculty who are untenured and at an institution with high tenure denial rates would also have strong incentives to spend their most productive years avoiding publishing anything that might upset private sector employers who could give them a soft landing in the event that they are denied tenure. Quantitative measures of faculty "productivity" based on number of citations and publications don't capture the harmful qualitative shift this would produce in faculty research, particularly in an area like law.
There are numerous other advantages to tenure (and disadvantages to weakening it), which I've discussed here and here, including protecting intelletual freedom, encouraging faculty to share rather than hoard knowledge, promoting investment in specialized skills, aligning faculty and institutional incentives, increasing the rigor of teaching and improving outcomes for students (compared to use of adjuncts).
December 19, 2018
Samuel Moyn (Yale): Law schools are too focused on public law to serve the public interest (Michael Simkovic)
In a thought provoking essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Samuel Moyn argues that law schools' focus on judge made law in general, and the Supreme Court in particular, is counterproductive especially when justified on ostensibly progressive grounds. Offline, Professor Moyn suggested that, to better help students understand how the legal system influences the distribution of economic and political power, progressives should focus more on teaching business law subjects like taxation and anti-trust.
Samuel Moyn, Law Schools Are Bad for Democracy: They whitewash the grubby scramble for power, Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 16, 2018.
December 16, 2018
The consulting firm McKinsey is a leading employer of graduates of elite law schools, business schools, medical schools, and other professional programs. The New York Times recently ran a piece attempting to link McKinsey to regimes that abuse human rights. McKinsey's response appears below.
Readers of this blog are probably familiar with how uneven in quality New York Times coverage can be in the higher education context. I would encourage readers not to jump to conclusions about McKinsey based on N.Y. Times coverage.
Note: I worked as consultant at McKinsey in New York approximately 10 years ago. I have published in the N.Y. Times within the last 3 years.