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Does your conscience bother you?

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Erik’s latest post regarding MOOCs and the very interesting discussion thread it generated raises a critical question: to what extent will technological innovations in the structure of higher education generate efficiencies that will be passed on to students, and to what extent will those innovations simply enrich the owners of those technologies and their favored hirelings? In a tolerably efficient market one wouldn’t have to worry too much about this — that Bill Gates and Larry Ellison have become gazillionaires has not interfered with a process by which the laptop that I’m typing on costs less in real terms than many electronic typewriters cost 30 years ago, even though the laptop is a vastly superior device.

But of course the market for educational credentials in America is, from a consumer perspective, wildly inefficient and increasingly dysfunctional (Note that the market for educational credentials is not the same thing as the process of education itself, which in many ways is simply not reducible to classical economic analysis).

What follows is a vignette about how rotten one corner of the business of higher education in America has gotten.

Sterling Partners is a private equity firm that, in recent years, has come to the conclusion that “the world has never been hungrier for educational services that deliver on their promise.” (Trans.: there’s gold in them there no questions asked non-dischargeable federal educational loan fund hills). As part of its strategy to maximize various edutastic synergies, etc., Sterling Partners acquired Infilaw Systems, a company whose assets consist of three for-profit law schools: Charlotte, Florida Coastal, and Phoenix (the latter isn’t affiliated with the University of Phoenix).

These three schools represent the ninth circle of what Irresponsible Bloggers Who Lack Civility have irresponsibly and uncivilly labeled the law school scam. All feature atrocious employment statistics, sky high tuition, enormous class sizes, and graduates with massive debt loads. For example, Phoenix’s 2012 graduating class had an average law school debt of nearly $200,000 at repayment, a 2012 entering class of 447, and an estimated cost of attendance of nearly $66,000 per year. Florida Coastal enrolled 580 first years — more than any law school in the country, with the exception of the egregious Thomas J. Cooley. Charlotte offered less “scholarship” money to its students, per capita, than any other law school — in a world where sticker price tuition at law schools is increasingly similar to advertised prices at garage sales, nearly 96% of Charlotte’s 2012 class paid full boat, as they say in the used car industry.

It’s hard to describe how awful the employment outcomes are at these schools. Note that all of them charge just under $40,000 per year in tuition — a price level which makes sense, to the extent it ever does, only at the handful of law schools where a solid majority of the class are getting well-paying jobs. None of these schools publish any salary data for their graduates — the feckless ABA still doesn’t require schools do to so — but what employment stats are available are so terrible that this information gap ought to be beside the point.

Barely one percent of the graduates at these three schools combined managed to get jobs with even a medium-sized law firm, let alone one of the large national firms that pay the kind of salaries that might possibly justify the tuition charged by these federally-funded rackets. Around a quarter of graduates were either completely unemployed nine months after graduation, or were stuffed into law-school created “jobs” that were both temporary and part-time. (You can be sure most of these “jobs” came into being shortly before the nine-month NALP reporting deadline and ceased to exist shortly afterwards).

Phoenix and Charlotte, which came into existence in 2005 and 2006 respectively, have been expanding at an almost exponential rate (Phoenix had 69 graduates in 2010, but had nearly 1100 students enrolled this past year), despite horrendous job prospects for new law graduates. Florida Coastal is, as noted above, already enormous — it has existed since 1996 — even though Florida features far worse employment prospects for new law graduates than the already-terrible national average.

These three schools, in other words, represent a straight-up educational ripoff in the most unambiguous possible way, with their for-profit status merely providing an exclamation point to what the rest of the relevant data make perfectly clear, as Richard Nixon used to say. That they like to characterize their operations as providing “access” to “under-served” minority groups and the like (aka: vulnerable individuals who often lack the requisite cultural capital to recognize a smooth-talking multi-degreed grifter in a three-piece suit) just adds to the overall stench emitted by this con.

So it ought to tell us something when the University of Alabama announced last week that Kenneth Randall, who had been dean of the university’s law school for 20 years, was “retiring” effective immediately, to enter what the university’s president characterized demurely as “the private sector.”

“The private sector” turns out to be . . . well let’s allow ex-Dean Randall to speak for himself:

We all are still working on the margins of traditional education with distance ed; it is high time to create economies of scale industry-wide; to bring law to non-lawyers; to create hybrid models of brick-and-mortar and technology-based programs; to train lawyers to deliver legal services in the new technology-based ways clients demand; and to train law students for jobs that don’t require a bar license. We need inclusive education, that breaks down geographical and other boundaries.

The InfiLaw System offered a special opportunity, supporting me to lead a new venture, InfiLaw Ventures, both to create new content, and to deliver existing content in ways that expand markets and serve student learners who otherwise might be left out of education….We will joint venture with schools nationally and internationally. I’ve been involved in traditional legal education. But the ABA rules on distance education need updating. We need the accreditors and educators and innovators coming together to meet the new realities of legal education.

Now personally I don’t think that, given the current economics of legal education and the legal profession, this is a whole lot different from announcing that you’re becoming a K Street lobbyist for a third world dictator, or maybe the proprietor of a Nevada brothel — with the notable difference that people who run brothels tend to avoid characterizing their ventures in such public-regarding terms.

Yet this announcement produced what in the halls of legal academia? Cries of amazement and disgust? A painful and embarrassed silence? Far from it! Behold:

I guess I’m not shocked that Ken’s leaving for other mountains to climb. And I hope I have the chance to spend time with him down the road, to learn more lessons about teaching and administration, and life in general from him. The quotation from Emerson that comes to mind now is from “Self-Reliance”: “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” And without sounding too melodramatic, that is certainly the case of the University of Alabama School of Law and Ken Randall.

[Alfred Brophy]


Alabama’s Long-Serving, and Very Successful, Dean Randall to Retire

News item here. Some earlier commentary on Dean Randall’s achievements here. [Brian Leiter]

I am sorry Ken’s leaving UASL, but I wish him well in his new endeavors – after 20 years as dean and 30 years on the faculty, it is no surprise he’s decided he wants to do something new. Ken has been the most effective dean in America for at least the last decade – the bad news is he’s leaving; the good news is that he’s not off to be dean at one of our rivals. [Andrew Moriss]

Ken Randall has been an exceptional Dean, one of the best in the country. He has been so because he works harder than anyone else, has exceptional vision, and cares tremendously about the University of Alabama law school, students, faculty and alums. His plans to retire have been in the works for months and delayed several times as he put the law school ahead of his personal desires. Dean Randall is a person of exceptional integrity.To suggest otherwise is irresponsible. UA law school has been fortunate to have had Dean Randall as its leader. Come visit our law school and see the outstanding job he has done.

[Pamela Bucy Pierson]

The last two items are in response to a (lightly sourced) report that Randall’s departure may not have been voluntary.

I would have thought that defending the “Infilaw System” and its lamentable progeny would have been beyond the pale for putatively respectable legal academics, but in fact I haven’t been able to find a word of criticism from inside legal academia regarding this move in the nine days since it was announced.

That, I suggest, has some relevance to the question with which this post started.

Update: A glimpse into Infilaw’s idea of “access to the legal profession.” (h/t Bloix)

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