« More on Gas Prices and Sprawl | Main | A New Way to Ignore The Law -- Don't Open Email from the Agency »

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Stanford's New Pass-Fail System: A "Back to the Future" Memoir

My alma mater, Stanford, now appears to be headed for the third (or maybe fourth) variant of pass-fail grading since my days there in the 1970s.  (HT Brian Leiter.)  Back then, any student in any year had the unrestricted option to take any class on the "3K" system - credit, restricted credit, no credit.  (This was spillover from the California '60s.)  The only academic consequence had to do with Order of the Coif.  You needed to have taken at least 75% of your credits for grades to qualify.  There was no grade-based invitation to law review (nor, as I recall, was there a "write-on" option).  There was instead a bluebook screening exercise administered by the incoming board at the end of the first year, and if you showed yourself sufficiently anal, you were eligible to come back to school two weeks early to attend "cite-checking boot camp."  (Actually this was the highlight of my academic career, as I did do the screening exercise, and as I make up for a deficit of talent with a huge surplus of anality, I was actively recruited by the incoming managing editor to come back to the boot camp.  But I was poor and couldn't afford to miss two weeks of summer income, and for the same reason, I wanted to go to work right away, so I skipped it.)

Since then, the school moved to the system of permitting some limited 3K choice after the first year, and allowing a full 3K option in the first semester.  It now has adopted prospectively the Yale 4K system (or 1H-3K), with an Honors possibility, something we didn't have.  Brian Leiter speculates on the effect this may have on intellectual engagement at Stanford, given that while elite, Stanford students aren't as elite as Yale students (because nobody is as elite as Yale students), at least in terms of admissions criteria.

Some thoughts after the jump.

Based on some data, some casual empiricism, and some logic, I speculate, for a number of reasons, that the changed grading system won't substantially impact the overall level of "intellectual engagement" among law students at Stanford.

1.  In dealing with my recollections, we are not completely talking apples and apples between the late 1970s system and the new system, and between Yale and Stanford.  First, you could opt into the old system to any level you wanted.  It was not uncommon, for example, to take the entire third year 3K if you had accepted a job offer and weren't in the running for Order of the Coif.  Second, there was no honors option back then in the 3K system.  The perception, however, was that grades did make a difference, even at Stanford, in terms of your marginal attractiveness to employers.  I don't know about Yale either then or now (I just remember someone telling me in about 1977 that everybody at Yale went on to a judicial clerkship).  So there was competition (although I do not recall it being cut-throat).  Whether that made for intellectual engagement, or merely for the desire to get good grades on the exams, I can't say, but I suspect it was more than latter than the former.  That is, those who wanted to be engaged (probably a minority) were engaged, regardless of the grading system. 

Would competition for "Honors" at Stanford have been roughly equivalent to competition for As?  I don't know.  It's also hard to assess this vis-a-vis the Yale experience, because I don't know (a) if there is competition for "Honors" at Yale, and (b) even if there were not, whether that translates to how students at Stanford feel about it (if in fact Stanford is not as selective as Yale).

2.  I'm not sure if we can make a qualitative judgment on engagement levels as a function, say, of LSAT scores.  To U.S. News, Yale reports a 25-75 range of 170-177; Stanford 167-172, and the undergrad GPAs are almost identical.  I spent a little time trying to figure out if Yale's proclivity for turning out law professors could account for a significant distinction between Yale and Stanford in terms of engagement without grades.  There may be something there.  I think it's a fair assumption that professor wannabes in law school are more likely to be engaged intellectually in the subject matter of law school, even without the incentive of grades.  The data certainly bears out the conclusions either that Yale is more selective than Stanford for successful professor wannabes, that successful professor wannabes self-select Yale more than Stanford, or some combination of the two.  (The latter seems to me most likely, there being a coordination effect.)   Yale Law School's Index of Success - Faculty of University or College Division ("ISFUCD")* is 114, almost three times Harvard's 46  and Stanford's 41, and five times Columbia's 23.  Hence, it should be far more common at Yale over Stanford and Harvard to run into people who we would expect to be intensely engaged, regardless of grade competition, in an academic way, at least as a percentage of the student body. 

3.  Note, however, that even a Yale ISFUCD of 114 translates to only 11.4% of the student body, compared to 4.1% of the student body at Stanford.  Here's where we get to a really tough question.  What is the ratio of wannabe professor wannabes to successful professor wannabes?   If at Yale, it's 7 or 8 to 1, then Brian's reference to an "intellectually intense majority" may have some sound empirical support.  I am quite positive the ratio was nothing like that at Stanford in the late 1970s.  My own law school class (I happen to have these statistics at hand) presently numbers 140 (there were more than that by a few, but that's all the e-mails we have), of whom seven are full-time faculty members (Weisberg, Baird, Hertz, Neuman, Henderson, Goldman, and me).  I don't recall that very many others were clamoring to be law professors.  In short, what this suggests is that then as now about seven or eight people per Stanford class are successful professor wannabes.  My recollection from back then, however, was that not a whole lot more wanted to be academics, and the vast majority were in it to get jobs upon graduation, at least more so than Yale both in absolute numbers and in percentage of the class.

4.  As to the some 90-95% of the class who are not professor wannabes, will the elimination of grades in favor of 1H-3K change students' underlying motivations about grades?  Unless students have mellowed substantially since the late 1970s (what I read of the Millennial Generation says this is not so), it seems to me Stanford students are still going to be hyper not just about getting jobs (they all will), but getting good jobs, and getting good jobs in the locations where they want to work.  Unless law firms have unlimited budgets of time and money, they are still going to need to make a cut about who comes back to the firm on a "drive-back" or "fly-back."  That is still going to require some kind of data for making the cut, whether it's the number of "Honors" or other indicia of law school achievement (Moot Court, Law Review, etc. - oh no - even more proliferation of student-edited specialty law journals?)  The survival instinct, it seems to me, will surface somewhere.

5.  Finally, is there really any connection at all between grades and what we as professors view as real intellectual engagement?  Right now, I teach all upper level courses and mostly third or fourth year students.  Even with grades, many of them have checked out already.  The ones who want to be engaged are engaged.  All of them are concerned with grades, but is the engagement that engenders serious intellectual engagement, or "will that be on the exam?"  Moreover, casual observations of engagement are likely affected by the kind of course you teach.  Jurisprudence, for example, is pretty self-selecting.  Evidence, on the other hand. . . .

Well, I have procrastinated enough for the day.

* The ISFUCD equals three years of entry-level hiring (2004-2006 as measured by the data I could find from Larry Solum's reports) divided by the school's 2007 total enrollment (from the U.S. News ranking data) multiplied by 1000.  The ratios were as follows:  Yale - 67/586; Stanford - 22/538; Harvard 79/1734; Columbia - 28/1236).

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on June 25, 2008 at 02:47 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Stanford's New Pass-Fail System: A "Back to the Future" Memoir:


Isn't it rather peculiar that a distinguished law professor who also happens to be a philosopher actually thinks that there is a substantive difference worth commenting on between the capacity of the 250 most elite law students in the country and, depending on whether you put Harvard above or below Stanford, the top 250-500th, or top 500-1000th most elite law students. I wonder what that says of the opinion that law professors hold of their own students, whether they be unfortunate enough to attend Chicago, or, heaven forbid, Texas.

Posted by: Bart | Jun 27, 2008 2:57:56 PM

I suspect, too, that part of the reason Yale turns out more professors is that fewer students deselect themselves based on their grades. I went to HLS and common wisdom had it that if you weren't graduating magna, you had no chance. Whether that common wisdom is true or not, candidates who were clamoring for academia and didn't get at least an A- average likely gave up (certainly I heard more than a few students say some variation on "Oh, my grades aren't very good; I might as well go to a big firm." So Yale's higher percentage of professor candidates could be as much a result of the grading system as anything else; if the statistics are around in 10 or 15 years, it'd be interesting to see if Stanford's percentage has increased since switching to this system.

Posted by: HLS Grad | Jun 25, 2008 5:08:57 PM

A lot of excellent points, in particular, I think, #5.

As to competition for Honors at Yale, I have no firsthand knowledge, I seem to recall David Lat mentioning on his blog some sort of unofficial cutoff in the percentage of H's you need in order to be considered for the top feeder clerkships (and thus Supreme Court clerkships). This would, I think, drive competition for those marks.

I've also seen threads on AutoAdmit discussing which professors at Yale are stingy with H's and which are more generous, implying some concern with having them on your transcript (albeit in a way that shows not intellectual engagement in law school but rather an attempt to find the easiest way to get where you want to go).

Posted by: Jason W. | Jun 25, 2008 4:35:53 PM

Post a comment