Friday, July 18, 2014

Misrepresenting Transfers

Mark Graber

One of my research assistants transferred to another law school last week.  This was hardly a surprise.  His rejection letter from the other school might as well have said, “Do not worry.  We plan to admit you as soon as we do not have to report your relatively low GPA and LSAT to US World News and Reports or other institutions that rank law schools.  We look forward to having you pay two years of full tuition.”  Similar winks and nods occur throughout contemporary legal pedagogy.

Whether law schools should encourage transfers is a fair question on which I have no intelligent opinion.  On the one hand, if faculty are free to move to higher ranking institutions, so should students.  On the other hand, for purposes of institutional stability, there is an obvious difference between faculty members who over a thirty year career spend ten years at three different institutions and law students changing schools after a year.  I’m a bit of a stick in the mud, so I do not like lots of transferring, but that is hardly a good reason to impose my preference on others.

The problem with continuing the above line of analysis is that contemporary law school transfer practices are strategies for increasing tuition dollars without risking the paper credentials of the class that have nothing to do with such concerns as institutional stability and free choice.  Administrators are well aware that in normal times they cannot gain more tuition dollars by increasing the size of their first year class without lowering their institution's average GPA and LSAT numbers ( in recent years, you cannot even maintain the size of your class without lowering average GPA and LSAT).  If, however, the same students are told go elsewhere for a year and then transfer, the law school gets two-thirds the tuition revenue with no cost to paper credentials. 

The result is that law school student credential reports are presently often as misleading as law school student employment reports.  The unreported credentials of the second and third year students in schools that accept substantial transfers are likely to be much weaker than the reported credentials of their first year class. No good reason exists, however, for thinking first year credentials far more important than second or third year credentials.  To the extent students have an interest in peers with strong paper credentials, that interest remains constant over time.  Employers making decisions whether to hire a law school graduate should be more concerned with the unreported credentials of that student’s third year class than with the reported credentials of the first year class. 

Of course, a fair case can be made that these credentials are meaningless.  But to the extent they are meaningful they ought to be accurate.  And the present practice of not counting transfers in student body credentials promotes or is misrepresentation.  

Once upon a time, we thought that universities ought to have high ethical standards in large part because, as the place where professional socialization took place, modeling the very best professional ethics was extraordinarily important (we also thought universities were places of higher learning rather than revenue generating bodies, but that is another post).  Increasingly, however, as universities are told they ought to behave more like businesses, those who insist on higher standards are mere eggheads, who no doubt are unfamiliar with practice.  I think a bar ethics commission would look askance at a lawyer who cooked numbers in the same way as we encourage law schools to cook the credentials of their students.  Perhaps law schools with “University” as part of the name ought to set a better example.

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