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When the levee breaks

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A terrible week of publicity for law schools continues apace, as today the New York Times published a story on the new Law School Transparency study that I highlighted in last week’s Atlantic piece. The gist of the study is that cratering applicant numbers have increased the number of schools who are admitting large numbers of matriculants who are in serious danger of never passing a bar exam from a handful to more than one third of all ABA schools.

This practice is in blatant violation of ABA accreditation standards, specifically Standard 501(b), which states that

A law school shall not admit an applicant who does not appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.

Of course this rule can be finessed, through the employment of those heightened analytical skills that a legal education is said to produce:

“Our experience has been that someone with a 147 score could pass the bar and someone else with 160 could fail, so we don’t think that there is necessarily a relationship between the test and people’s ability to pass the bar,” said Christopher Behan, [Southern Illinois’s] associate dean.

Anyway the LST report is something everybody in the law school world should read.

On a related note, Indiana University law professor Bill Henderson, best known as the chronicler of the bimodal salary distribution among new law school graduates who are employed as lawyers and report their salaries, has a good take on Sunday’s Times editorial regarding law graduate debt. Henderson’s basic point is that when the levee of unlimited federal loans to law schools breaks, crying won’t help you and praying won’t do you no good:

It is hard to argue that a cap on federal funding of legal education would be bad policy for students, the legal profession, taxpayers, or broader society. Such a change would:

Reduce the number of law grads going into a saturated labor market;
Reduce the number of low credentialed students admitted to law school who will one day struggle to pass the bar;
Reduce the risk of nonpayment of students loans currently borne by US taxpayers;
Put in place serious cost-containment on legal education.

Now there are complications to capping federal loans: As Unemployed Northeastern notes, without further reforms private lenders may simply fill the gap, although in my view they’re unlikely to do much gap filling under these circumstances if such loans are made dischargeable in bankruptcy, as they ought to be. But the current system is both indefensible and unsustainable. And, as Henderson also notes, the dysfunctions of how law school is financed are symptomatic of the increasingly dysfunctional economics of higher education in America as a whole.

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