If you’re like me you have friends and acquaintances who want to go to law school. I often respond sarcastically that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” There have long been “law school scam” blogs, but it seems that right now there’s a veritable bubble in media reports on exactly how law schools are screwing their students. Remember, law school debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy.
First, an article in The New Republic, Served: How law schools completely misrepresent their job numbers:
When we take temporary employment into account, it appears that approximately 45 percent of 2010 graduates of this particular top-50 law school had real legal jobs nine months after graduation. And the overall number is likely lower, since it seems probable that the temporary employment figures for the graduates of almost any top 50 school would be better than the average outcome for the graduates of the 198 ABA-accredited law schools as a whole.
Even this grim figure, however, may be unduly optimistic. All these statistics are based on self-reporting, and neither law schools nor NALP audit the data they publish. In the course of my research, I audited a representative sample of individual graduate responses and found several instances of people describing themselves as employed permanently or full-time, when in fact they had temporary or part-time jobs (I found no instances of inaccuracies running in the other direction). Perhaps some graduates exaggerate their employment status out of embarrassment, or for strategic reasons, but, whatever their reasons might be, this apparently not uncommon practice suggests that the true employment rate should be lowered even further.
To keep her grant, all that Ms. Leumer had to do was maintain a grade-point average of 3.0 or above — a B or better. If she dipped below that number at the end of either the first or the second year, the letter explained, she would lose her scholarship for good.
“I didn’t give it much thought,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be a challenge.”
Her grades and test scores were well above the median at Golden Gate, which then languished in the bottom 25 percent of the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings of law schools.
How hard could a 3.0 be? Really hard, it turned out. That might have been obvious if Golden Gate published a statistic that law schools are loath to share: the number of first-year students who lose their merit scholarships. That figure is not in the literature sent to prospective Golden Gate students or on its Web site.
But it’s a number worth knowing. At Golden Gate and other law schools nationwide, students are graded on a curve, which carefully rations the number of A’s and B’s, as well as C’s and D’s, awarded each semester. That all but ensures that a certain number of students — at Golden Gate, it could be in the realm of 70 students this year — will lose their scholarships and wind up paying full tuition in their second and third years
Why would a school offer more scholarships than it planned to renew?
The short answer is this: to build the best class that money can buy, and with it, prestige. But these grant programs often succeed at the expense of students, who in many cases figure out the perils of the merit scholarship game far too late.
It’s true that people should go into these sorts of decisions with eyes wide open, even taking into account cognitive biases which we as humans have to strongly overestimate our skills and ability to “beat the odds.” But a lot of this stuff would clear out if educational debt was treated the same way as other debt when it comes to bankruptcy. Of course that would kill the cheap gusher of money, as creditors will be more vigilant and stingy if there’s a probability that they will lose all legal grounds to collect at some point in the future. But this sort of discipline is necessary when making a rational calculus. As it is, law schools, and higher education more generally, has a other-peoples’-money problem right now. At some point the music will stop, people will be left holding the bag, and the bubble will burst.
The fact that the mainstream media is now devoting so much time to the issue is a good sign that there’s a change in the offing. Outrage and disillusionment has percolated out far enough socially that this is a story that many people are interested in. In the higher socioeconomic stratum enough people have relatives, friends, and acquaintances, who have been played. Stories about how check cashing places exploit the lower orders often have an anthropological feel. Not so when it comes to law schools. These are “our kind of people.”