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.
November 02, 2018
After crippling teachers unions in Wisconsin, the Republican controlled state government moved to slash education budgets and reduce educators' autonomy, both in K-12 education and in higher education. Many experienced teachers have left the state or left education all together. Student performance deteriorated.
Prominent professors have complained about changes to tenure standards which they say constitute the elimination of tenure or its substitution with "fake tenure." A new law essentially forced the university to relinquish any semblance of academic standards with respect to approval of outside speakers. It also subjects students, faculty, and administrators to potentially harsh discipline for disagreeing with political leaders or powerful donors.
Massive budget cuts triggered efforts to eliminate academic programs, mainly in social sciences and the humanities. Some programs have been given a stay of execution only through professors taking on such heavy teaching loads that academic research will grind to a halt.
Faculty are increasingly leaving for greener pastures, and the state--already suffering economically--risks continuing losses of educated professionals and the tax revenue and economic benefits they bring.
Wisconsin could be the canary in the coal mine as the politics of hostility to education go national. As recent federal tax legislation shows, not even well-endowed private universities are immune from political pressure.
On the other hand, there is evidence of a political backlash in Wisconsin as voters increasingly support local property tax increases to fund investments in educaiton. Political hostility to education may be limited to the extent that even voters focused on (largely trumped up) "cultural" issues will eventually reject disinvestment policies that damage the economy.
UPDATE Nov 4, 2018: Jason Yackee (Wisconsin) responded by email to the post above. Professor Yackee views things in Wisconsin as better than they seem, at least on the Madison campus. Yackee also argues that there was overcapacity in parts of the University of Wisconsin system and that budget cuts on some campuses serving smaller communities (or perhaps closures) make sense. I have posted Profesor Yackee's email below, with his permission. My skeptical reaction appears below Yackee's letter.
October 07, 2018
Financial Times: White House Considered Blanket Ban on Student Visas for Chinese Nationals, partly with goal of hurting Universities (Michael Simkovic)
From the Financial Times:
"White House hawks earlier this year encouraged President Donald Trump to stop providing student visas to Chinese nationals, but the proposal was shelved over concerns about its economic and diplomatic impact. . . .
Stephen Miller, a White House aide who has been pivotal in developing the administration’s hardline immigration policies, pushed the president and other officials to make it impossible for Chinese citizens to study in the US, according to four people familiar with internal discussions. . . .
While the debate was largely focused on spying, Mr. Miller argued his plan would also hurt elite universities whose staff and students have been highly critical of Mr Trump, according to the three people with knowledge of the debate.
The issue came to a head in an Oval Office meeting in the spring during which Mr Miller squared off with administration opponents, including Terry Branstad, the former Iowa governor who is US ambassador to China.
According to the four people familiar with the discussions, ahead of the Oval Office meeting Mr Branstad argued that Mr Miller’s plan would take a much bigger toll on smaller colleges, including in Iowa, than on wealthy Ivy League universities. US embassy officials in Beijing also made a broader economic argument that most American states enjoy service-sector trade surpluses with China, in part because of spending by Chinese students.
Mr Branstad succeeded in convincing the president that Mr Miller’s proposal was too draconian, according to one person familiar with the White House showdown. At one point, Mr Trump looked at his ambassador and quipped: “Not everyone can go to Harvard or Princeton, right Terry?”
One person familiar with the debate said Mr Miller’s opponents were worried the president might return to the issue, particularly as he takes an increasingly tough line on China over everything from trade to cyber security.
September 27, 2018
Testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on the "State of Intellectual Freedom in America" (Michael Simkovic)
I testified earlier today at the House Judiciary Committee on the "State of Intellectual Freedom in America." A copy of my written testimony can be seen here. My shorter oral remarks are available here.
An excerpt appears below:
"Disagreement between knowledgeable scientific experts and median political views often do not suggest political bias on the part of scientists, but rather an effort by think tanks, media organizations, interest groups and politicians to inappropriately politicize scientific issues.
For example, the causes and consequences of Climate Change are scientific issues. The likely economic harm from such changes, and the costs of preventing or mitigating them, are also scientific issues. So are the adverse health consequences from air and water pollution or the health effects of smoking. So is the question of whether tax cuts can generate enough economic growth to reduce the Debt-to-GDP ratio.
While scientific questions can have political and policy implications, scientific inquiry should not be politicized. The best evidence should be analyzed with the best methods, and the implications and degree of uncertainty honestly conveyed to policymakers and the public.
But according to scientific experts, many scientific issues have been inappropriately politicized when scientific evidence threatened private sector profits or government budgets. These issues include the causes and effects of climate change, the health risks of pollution, and the dangers of tobacco use.
According to a Pew survey, nearly 80 percent of scientists believe that previous administrations suppressed government scientists’ findings for political reasons. Many scientists worry that suppression of scientific findings for political reasons is becoming more common.
Note that the Pew sample consists overwhelmingly of natural or “hard” scientists in fields such as medical sciences, chemistry, physics and geosciences. Pew’s sample included those who work in private industry as well as those who work in government and universities.
Recently, there have been systematic efforts by some members of Congress to weaken the role of science in informing agency rule-making and increase the role of political actors. Some politicians have also sought to prevent government agencies from collecting basic data about demographics, the environment, health and safety, and the economy, even if de-identified to protect individual privacy.
Today, threats to academic freedom can come from powerful donors, political leaders, and outside pressure groups who sometimes seek to subtly (or not so subtly) influence ostensibly neutral and unbiased academic research to further their own business interests or other political preferences.
The best way to protect universities from undue influence may be to secure and expand revenue sources that are indifferent to or cannot sway the conclusions of academic research. This is analogous to the approach we take to try to protect the independence of members of the federal judiciary or the Federal Reserve."
September 23, 2018
Think tanks, CBO dramatically overestimated the direct budgetary costs of Public Service Loan Forgiveness (Michael Simkovic)
I've previously noted some of the outrageously implausible assumptions used by organizations with links to private student lenders (such as the New American Foundation, AEI, Brookings, Manhattan Institute, and Barclays) in an apparent effort to portray federal student loans as a threat to the public fisc. Such studies have been used to justify increases in federal student loan interest rates, credit rationing (borrowing caps), and a less accommodative policy with respect to income based loan forgiveness.
A new government report suggests that these groups may have also over-estimated the costs of Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). PSLF is distinct from income-base repayment programs (IBR). Whereas IBR is intended as insurance for student loan borrowers against relatively low earnings persisting over the course of a 20 year period, PSLF is intended as a wage subsidy to encourage highly educated skilled workers to accept public sector and non-profit jobs and continue to work in them for at least 10 years.
Early estimates had wildly exaggerated the cost of PSLF, assuming that 25 percent of student loans would be discharged through these programs within 10 years, since at any one time around 25 percent of the workforce works in the public sector.
There are numerous problems with this estimate: graduates transition in and out of the workforce; graduates move between the private and public sectors; not all public sector work qualifies for PSLF. It will therefore take far more than 10 years after graduation for many borrowers to accumulate a sufficient period of time working in qualifying public sector jobs before they can earn forgiveness. During this time period, borrowers continue to make student loan payments, decreasing the budgetary costs of eventual debt forgiveness. The eligibility and documentation requirements for PSLF are also stringent, further disqualifying many applicants.
According to the government report noted above, in the first year in which graduates could potentially qualify, only 28,000 borrowers applied and only 96 (less than 0.5%) qualified for forgiveness. 28 percent of applications were disqualified for missing information, while over 70 percent were disqualified because they had not yet met the program eligibility requirements.
The total balance forgiven in the first half of 2018 was $5.52 million dollars. The CBO, relying in part on assumptions advocated by think thanks, had estimated that the program would cost $425 million in 2018, and nearly $24 billion within 10 years.
While qualifying applications are likely to grow in the coming years, the contrast between the high estimated cost and the low actual cost thus far is striking.
August 29, 2018
Pope Center: UNC Chapel Hill remains "a problem" for suggesting that programs to alleviate poverty might help alleviate poverty (Michael Simkovic)
When North Carolina researchers who study poverty criticized conservative law makers in North Carolina, political leaders reminded academics of the dangers of speaking out against their bosses. Republicans responded by shutting down the law school's poverty center, crippling its civil rights center, and voting for draconian cuts to UNC Chapel Hill law school's budget. North Carolina's Republicans were also among the first to pass the Koch funded, Goldwater Institute backed "Campus Free Speech Act", which is a thinly veiled effort to politicize universities, and monitor and intimidate administrators, students, and faculty under the guise of promoting "free speech."
North Carolina's leading funder of libertarian and Republican causes, James Arthur Pope (usually referred to as 'Art' Pope), is apparently displeased that even after the punishment meted out on the University of North Carolina, the University still hasn't completely capitulated. Mr. Pope's point person on bullying universities into submission, George Leef of the John Pope Franklin Center, recently penned an editorial in the National Review calling UNC "a problem" because of its summer reading list for incoming students.
One of several UNC campuses committed the mortal sin of asking incoming students to read and discuss a pulitzer prize winning non-fiction book which tells the story of American families struggling with the hardships of poverty. The book suggests that government programs to alleviate poverty actually sometimes help alleviate poverty. (In libertarian parlance, this is "advocating statism.") Worse yet, it seems like the kind of book that might be appreciated by Senators Sanders and Warren, two progressive Democrats.
What's notable about Leef's criticism of the book is that he doesn't point to factual errors, inconsistencies, selective citations, logical errors or other problems of quality. For Leef, the book isn't bad because it's sloppy. It's bad because it might create sympathy for policies that extremely rich people who want lower taxes dislike.
An essay in Commentary which Leef praises also attacks scientists at UNC for supporting the international scientific consensus on man-made Global Warming. Universities agreeing with the international scientific consensus allegedly violates principles of "political neutrality."
To some major donors and those whom they fund, "free speech" is too often a euphemism for donor control of public dialogue, and by extension public policy.
 This should not be read as an endorsement of the book. To my mind, there are substantive flaws which could have been pointed out, such as failing to note that high cap rates on low income housing often reflect higher risks for investors and lower expectations of appreciation in value.
August 08, 2018
The ABA recently voted to permit a dramatic expansion of online legal education.
Online education is controversial in higher education. It is even more controversial in legal education, which relies more on classroom interaction and less on lectures than most forms of higher education.
Widespread perceptions that online education is lower quality than live instruction in general—and may be particularly disadvantageous in legal education—are backed by numerous peer-reviewed empirical studies.
Proponents of online education argue that it is more convenient because students and faculty do not have to commute, or because students can learn at their own pace. They argue that it is potentially more cost effective, either because physical facilities need not be used, or because it is scalable, or because an artisanal model of teaching through knowledgeable faculty can be replaced with a less expensive, industrial model of low-skill specialized workers who each handle particular aspects of course development and teaching. Some argue that technology can be used to closely monitor and track students, and that the information gathered can be used to improve the quality of education.
Critics of online education argue that it is lower quality, that most students learn and absorb less, and that the social dynamic of the classroom and learning from one’s peers and interacting with alumni is a critical part of education. (In addition to multiple peer-reviewed studies, they point to recent examples of “online education” such as self-paced workplace training modules as examples of the low quality that can be expected.)
Critics point to the failure of MOOCS—which have extremely low completion rates (see also here)—as evidence of the limits of scalability. They point to the pricing and cost experience of most universities, which have seen high costs of developing and maintaining online courses and additional software licensing fees which have prevented them from charging much less for online classes than for those taught in person. And they point to a rash of cheating and distracted learning, which anecdotally seem to be more prevalent online than in person.
Perhaps the most empirically rigorous (and recent) study of online education to date—which relied on an experimental design with random assignment of students to different versions of the same introductory economics course—found evidence that “live-only instruction dominates internet instruction . . . particularly . . . for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students.” An earlier study which also used a quasi-experimental approach, found similar results, especially for complex conceptual learning:
“We find that the students in the virtual classes, while having better characteristics, performed significantly worse on the examinations than the live students. This difference was most pronounced for exam questions that tapped the students' ability to apply basic concepts in more sophisticated ways, and least pronounced for basic learning tasks such as knowing definitions or recognizing important concepts . . .
Choosing a completely online course carries a penalty that would need to be offset by significant advantages in convenience or other factors important to the student. . . . Doing as well in an online course as in the live alternative seems to require extra work or discipline beyond that demonstrated by our students, especially when it comes to learning the more difficult concepts.”