The Legal Beat
Guy Tries, Fails To Defend Charlotte School Of Law
Posted on Friday January 13, 2017
Generally speaking, the Department of Education’s decision to crack down on law schools failing its gainful employment standard has earned hearty support. Certainly here at Above the Law, we’ve welcomed the government stepping up its responsibility to uphold high standards for professional education. Or, failing that, any standards for professional education.
So obviously this left a wide opening for the contrarian view, and Forbes found it with today’s “We Have Too Many Law Schools, But This Isn’t The Way To Thin The Herd”
Let’s just say sometimes hot takes are bad takes.
George Leef of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy is an evangelist against government involvement in education, and he rides that rickety worldview all the way to a blame-shifting defense of Charlotte’s abysmal performance.
He opens by correctly diagnosing the law school crisis we’ve talked about for the last several years — quality prospective students have increasingly taken their talents to other professions, and lower-tier law schools have dropped their admission standards and accepted more and more students that they know or should know are unlikely to pass the bar exam and secure legal industry employment. And even more unlikely to secure employment lucrative enough to pay off their loans.
But from here, Leef parts company with most law school skeptics:
In his statement on that, Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said, “The ABA repeatedly found that Charlotte School of Law does not prepare students for participation in the legal profession.”
That’s a wild exaggeration. The ABA declared CSL not to be in compliance with its standards on legal education and student admissions in November, but the difference between being in or out of compliance is marginal. And if it were really true that the school does not prepare students for the legal profession, how could any of them have passed the bar exam and found legal jobs?
Because by and large they didn’t? Over half of Charlotte graduates didn’t pass the 2015 bar, and the school has a 23.5 percent employment score as reported by Law School Transparency. And the ABA cleared the school because it’s served as an embarrassing rubber stamp on legal education for years and should be replaced.
You see, despite understanding that the problem with these schools stems from declining standards, Leef’s philosophy requires proving that the fault doesn’t lie with the school making questionable professional decisions and selling a dream it can’t deliver — something a regulator or a professional organization would police — but with the students coaxed into school by the promise of federal loans.
Obviously this is all Obama’s fault.
As was the case with [now closed for-profit college] ITT, the Department focused only on the bad aspects of CSL and ignored the good. Where the Department saw only the bad side of the coin with low admission standards and weak results, others might view the opposite side and see an institution that gives students who probably couldn’t otherwise get into law school a chance to prove themselves.
Others might view it that way. They’d be wrong, but they could view it that way. Seriously, this diversity canard needs to end. As I wrote on the subject of accreditation back in September:
There is, of course, the real risk that tightening standards based on a standardized test and undergraduate grades will only reinforce pre-existing advantages and make the profession less diverse. But you know what’s a bigger risk? That lower-tier law schools are dangling an unrealistic goal in front of students who can barely afford to pay for it and then wrapping themselves in the noble rhetoric of diversity to dupe the powers-that-be into giving them a pass. Screw those people. We’re not going to fall for that.
As an aside, later in Leef’s piece, he cites an article by Lawrence Velvel for the proposition that ABA accreditation standards are actually too demanding. That’s almost assuredly not true, but Velvel’s piece does make the good point that input-based standards are poor indicators of law school quality — a stance Above the Law completely endorses in its own, output-centric rankings — yet despite citing this at one point, somehow we get the following argument from Leef:
All CSL students enrolled knowing that law school is hard and the bar exam the biggest intellectual challenge they’ve ever faced. Some succeeded while others didn’t. That’s perfectly normal. But the Education Department takes the position that it’s the obligation of the school rather than the students to ensure that the outcomes are good enough to satisfy it.
Yes… schools should be measured by outputs. By the way, drink in the sweet, sweet intellectual dishonesty, because George Leef himself is all over holding educators responsible for whether or not students pass or fail when he’s blasting “intellectually mediocre teachers” to fit his agenda of laying off public school teachers. But today the argument is cutting federal funding, so now it’s all on the students and these poor, for-profit schools apparently bear no responsibility for outcomes.
But if CSL goes under, many of the students who would have enrolled there will just find another school willing to accept them. Eliminating one law school does nothing to solve the basic problem, which is that the output of law graduates is far in excess of the number of jobs in the legal profession.
Well, no, it’s that legal education is so expensive that graduates aren’t taking jobs in the legal sectors that are desperately understaffed. Probably a function of the decline of properly subsidized state schools. But I digress.
Leef says the government’s only excuse for holding educators responsible are the hefty federal student loan tabs that students ring up and then can’t pay back. And that’s certainly part of it. But rather than justifying the DOE’s role, he argues that this is why we just shouldn’t have federal loans.
It makes no more sense for the government to help a student with a 175 LSAT pay for Harvard than to help a student with a 145 LSAT pay for CSL.
Unless you think there’s some sort of societal good in having lawyers. Or, beyond that, that it might be nice if occasionally lawyers weren’t trust-fund kids. If those aren’t priorities for you, then yes turning over 100 percent of loan financing to the private sector’s higher rates makes sense. Assuming most people don’t believe this, then this is a fantastically poor idea.
Don’t get me wrong, giving out cheap money helped fuel the law school bubble. But that market’s slowly and imperfectly correcting itself. What’s needed now is someone to enforce some basic standards to clamp down on opportunism.
Because federal money isn’t the only thing getting students to choose law school. Law students are getting private student loans now. Banks aren’t deterred by the risks — they aren’t only jumping in because the student also locked down partial financing from the government. They’re just going to charge higher rates to cover their enhanced risk. The schools won’t cut costs because… why would they? If the government pulls out of law school lending, some schools may go under, others won’t, and the only thing achieved is even more pressure on law school graduates to take higher earning work, shifting more work away from the public sector that actually has openings.
That’s what will happen. As opposed to…
Schools will then compete as best they can for those students who can arrange to pay for their degrees with money from willing funders.
Sure they will. One of my econ professors once told me that first-year economics is about learning, with charts and hypotheticals, about the unbridled potential of the free market, and the rest of your major is using real data to understand why those charts never seem to work in real life. Needless to say, whenever I encounter entities boasting “free market solutions,” I’m reminded of the naïve serenity of first-year econ.
Let’s be honest here and note that the all-powerful “market solution” in this case is just another way of saying “let’s trust 21-year-old kids to better assess their future professional prospects and financial risks in a field they’ve never studied instead of professionals armed with years worth of empirical data.”
And when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound nearly so elegant.