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Friday, June 27, 2008

More good news from U.S. News ... Not!

U.S. News and World Report has announced that it's thinking about changing its law ranking methodology in two ways.  To quote their blog: "The first idea is that U.S. News should count both full-time and part-time entering student admission data for median LSAT scores and median undergraduate grade-point averages in calculating the school's ranking. . . . Another idea . . .  calls for U.S. News to compute our bar passage rate component (school's bar pass rate/jurisdiction's bar passage rate) using only the data of first-time takers who are graduates of American Bar Association-accredited schools."  According to the posting, this second idea was proposed in a report on U.S. News rankings commissioned by the AALS.  This posting addresses the first proposed change.

My first-blush take on the first idea is it is potentially quite pernicious, as it will put pressure on law schools to curtail part-time (especially evening) programs' focus on older students whose life and work experience may offset any deficits on the more standard admissions credentials (i.e., LSAT scores and GPA).  This is especially true with regard to LSAT scores.  I freely admit that I don't have empirical evidence to back this up, but I've got to believe that, all other things being equal, someone who's been out of school for 10, 20 or 30 years is simply not going to do as well on a racehorse multiple choice test as someone fresh out of college.  If those students are going to start counting for U.S. News ranking purposes admissions committees are going to start giving those students less of a break on that criterion, even if their post-college accomplishments give all kinds of reasons to expect the applicant to succeed in law school.  The same goes for GPA.  If a 40 year-old applicant had only mediocre performance in college but has since excelled in whatever she's done I would think that logically a 20 year-old GPA shouldn't count for much.  The proposed change in U.S. News's methodology will put pressure on that common-sense policy as well.

This change could also cause some other perverse effects.  Presumably many law schools' business models assume the continued existence of a part-time program -- for example, if their facilities simply can't handle siginficant increases in full-time enrollment.  If those part-time programs start to be filled by students with higher conventional credentials it will probably be the case that those students will be more likely to be recent college grads without major career or life commitments.  Thus, a school's part-time and full-time programs will start to be filled by the same demographic.  This may well cause tension.  Full-time 24 year-old students who don't work will complain about part time 24 year-old students who don't work since those part time students will have a lot more time to study.  (I confronted that complaint more than once in my stint as associate dean.)  If they end up in the same classes (and there will be more pressure for this, too, since, by hypothesis, the part-time students will not have any particular place to be during the day), does that suggest that they should be graded on different curves even in the same class?  This problem already exists to some degree.  But usually it's full-time day students who take evening classes (specialty classes often taught by adjuncts), rather than part-time evening students taking day classes.  So in some sense under the current scheme any unfairness to day students is the product of their own decision to take an evening class.  (And again, currently those evening students often have lots of commitments, a fact that mitigates any complaint about an uneven playing field.)  But an evening division filled with 24 year-olds will lead to a lot of day classes being filled with evening students who have significantly lighter loads than their day-division peers.

These evening students may suffer harms of their own.  Currently it's easy for most evening students to explain to employers why they're part-time students.  If U.S. News changes its methodology and law schools change their admissions criteria in response then part-time students will have more explaining to do as to why they're not finishing in three years.  In general, the change may lead employers to start seeing part-time programs not as programs designed to accommodate older students' scheduling needs but as second-class programs catering the same demographic as full-time programs, but enrolling less-desirable members of that demographic.

These latter effects are speculative, of course.  But it does seem clear that older, non-traditional students will take an admissions hit if this change goes into effect.  And that would really be too bad.  Part-time programs face a lot of challenges, about which I have blogged before.  But they play an important, and maybe underappreciated, role in making a legal education more accessible to those who otherwise wouldn't be able to obtain one.  It would be a shame if yet another hurdle would be placed in their path by a change in how U.S. News does its already highly questionable rankings.

Posted by Bill Araiza on June 27, 2008 at 02:25 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I have no particular thoughts about the US News ranking system, but a brief comment on Prof. Araiza's presumption that older prospective law students have lower LSAT scores that those fresh out of college. I mean no disrespect, but as a former older law student (and a current older BigLaw litigation associate), I'm growing increasingly frustrated/annoyed at this profession's rather patronizing attitude towards those who did something else before seeing the light of the law, and the various presumptions about, inter alia, our ability to measure up to our junior colleagues.

The LSAT is an exam that people train for. How well you do, once trained, will depend on your native ability on standardized tests. Neither of these factors is a function of age.

I took the LSAT 15 years out of undergrad and scored in the 99th percentile. I know others similarly situated who scored, well, similarly.

There's a lot of misinformation about older "young" lawyers out there, misinformation that complicates our careers immeasurably. Please don't add to it.

RES

Posted by: Ruth | Jun 29, 2008 6:54:36 AM

I took the LSAT 13 years out of school and got a very high score (99+ percentile). The SAT and other standardized tests have been around for a very long time, and we older students grew up taking them. The LSAT is not a different animal, and I don't think being out of school for more than a decade hurt my score at all.

Posted by: mark | Jun 30, 2008 10:26:52 AM

I have just a few thoughts, mainly in response to Ruth's post (apologies for the delay since she posted them):

1. I certainly don't think the less of older evening students who come to law school with life experience. Indeed, my own experience teaching those students is that they bring a lot to the profession, exactly because they've done something other than sit at a desk and take tests all their lives.

2. However, I do believe (with the caveats I state below) that on average part-time students have lower LSAT scores when compared with their full-time peers at the same school. This was an anecdotal understanding when I posted my blog entry, and to give it a quick check before posting this response I looked at ABA statistics from last year, available here: http://www.abanet.org/legaled/statistics/charts/OG%20Right%20Page%202008.xls. Obviously I'm not doing anything scientifically rigorous, but a quick perusal of those numbers supports my initial sense. The vast majority of schools with both FT and PT programs showed higher LSATs for their FT programs, at all percentile levels (75, 50 and 25). There are exceptions, and maybe last year was an aberration (I'd be curious if anyone knows that -- the information is easy enough to get from the ABA), and, crucially, we don't know how many students in PT programs are in fact older students, but at least last year's data supports my impression, and that of other profs (like Brian Leiter -- http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2008/06/fiddling-while.html) who have a similar concern about the proposed change in the US News ranking methodology. The differences for a lot of schools are small, but they're averages across entire entering classes, and are replicated across most law schools that have two divisions. And small differences matter in terms of where one ranks coming into law school -- for example, the difference between FT programs' 75th and 25th percentile rankings appear, from a rough eyeballing, to average in the 4-6 point range. So an LSAT score difference of, say, two points, is not insignificant in terms of whether one is toward the higher or lower end of the entering class in terms of LSAT scores.

3. Now, one thing I don't know is how many PT division students are in fact "traditional evening" students -- i.e., older students with major career experiences and current. I've heard different claims about this, both anecdotally from students and in terms of studies I have heard of. I agree that that's a real potential confounding factor in evaluating the test performances of younger students and "traditional evening" students.

4. Still, I would think that students who have continuously taken tests for years just prior to taking the LSAT are advantaged compared to those who haven’t taken one recently, or who have only recently taken a prep course (obviously there will always be exceptions like Ruth and Mark). Again I’m no expert but it seems that being in a mindset of taking tests – especially multiple choice tests – will make you more adept at the task, all other things being equal (which of course they never are – lots of other factors also go into test performance). My students seem to believe this, too; every semester a number of them come to me asking for a recommendation for a study aid in Con Law that focuses on multiple choice questions (which is part of how I test). Those students seem to think that practicing multiple choice questions helps them. If they’re correct then practicing for years and years just prior to the LSAT would presumably help too.

5. Ultimately, I still think that the proposed US News change will hurt traditional evening students. At the very least, those students are comparatively advantaged relative to their younger applicant-competitors when non-LSAT and GPA criteria are taken into account, given those applicants’ career and life experiences. To the extent the profession benefits from those students – and I think it does – it’s unfortunate that those criteria will probably be deemphasized as admissions committees focus even more on LSAT and GPA.

Posted by: Bill Araiza | Jul 4, 2008 12:12:53 PM

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