The Lemmings Are All Right: Richard Matasar Responds to David Segal

Anyone who read last weekend’s New York Times piece, “Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!” by David Segal should also take the time to read NYLS dean Richard Matasar’s response, “Law School Cost, Educational Outcomes, and a Reformer’s Agenda,” on NYLS’s website. Matasar keeps his cool and provides the written pieces he sent to Segal before the article’s publication. Today’s special is what exactly caused NYLS’s large class of 2009.

Segal:

[NYLS] increased the size of the class that arrived in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded.

Matasar:

For the prior 3 years our yield rate—the percentage of students who received offers, who accepted those offers, and enrolled—had been relatively steady. From 2008 to 2009, however, the yield rate increased by 10 percent, meaning that even though we accepted fewer students than the prior year (approximately 150 fewer), 170 more students enrolled. While we can’t say with certainty why this happened, we can look to the economic downturn, the opening of the new building which was receiving rave reviews, and the fact that we were coming off of a record high bar pass rate of 93.6 percent as reasons why more applicants chose to come. Again, enrollment can be very unpredictable.

So: Segal argues the 2009 1L bounce was deliberate and reckless on NYLS’s part; Matasar counters that it’s not NYLS’s fault people were clamoring to go there for its building, high bar passage rates, and law school’s low opportunity cost.

Except they weren’t.

Aside from the fact that the economic downturn translated to only a slight bump in law school applicants, NYLS saw none of this. Indeed, according to Official Guide data NYLS suffered a 25% applicant drop in 2009, complicating the story.

Instead of cobbling together an HTML table, here’s a screen capture of NYLS’s incoming classes from 2004 to 2010 according to the Official Guide.

So full-time applicants dropped 28% and part-time applicants 11%. Segal didn’t research this, and Dean Matasar has no reason to tell anyone. At some point in 2009 NYLS’s admissions office must have realized there was a problem, and it altered its acceptance strategy accordingly.

Starting with part-time students, it looks like Segal is right: NYLS deliberately accepted more applicants predicting they would matriculate. For full-time applicants, one might think that by extending fewer offers than in previous years, NYLS was expecting a smaller incoming class, but that wasn’t what it did. Bear in mind the “Offer %” was 10% higher than in previous years despite the lower numeric acceptance rate. Had it accepted 45% of its full-time applicants, with 20% matriculating, it would have an incoming class of 306, similar to 2006, which was an unusually low matriculation year for NYLS.

When a drop in applications occurs, the quality of the applicants (LSAT & GPA) drops as well. The bell curve contracts and shifts rightward towards zero. Looking at the full-time class of 2009, I characterize what happened to NYLS as a “downshift.” NYLS had to compromise accepting students with lower-than-usual credentials against under-enrolling its incoming class. It accepted 212 fewer applicants, but it inaccurately predicted the matriculation yield. Consequently, Matasar is right to the extent that NYLS didn’t predict the willingness of people who got B’s in college to go to NYLS over those who got B+’s.

I suspect geography explains the downshift. The only other law schools in New York State that accepted the kinds of students that NYLS did in 2009 were Albany, Syracuse, and Touro. Albany and Syracuse are mid-state, and Touro is beyond Gatsby Country on Long Island, making it more attractive to New Jersey-based applicants.[i] In 2009 NYLS accidentally discovered that it is in a prime location to serve the market for B-average prospective law students. In 2010, NYLS adapted again by accepting its usual number of part-time applicants, roughly, but it reduced its numbers of offers despite a slight increase in full-time applicants. Its matriculation yield was still 10% higher than before 2009, but the incoming class largely recovered to median B+ college students, though the high-end GPAs were slightly lower. It will be interesting to see what happens to NYLS in fall 2011. However, of the 2,000 or so fewer NYLS applicants in 2009 and 2010, some of them may have realized a law career would not be available to them if they went to NYLS.

The good news that Segal missed and Matasar declined to mention is that not all lemmings jump.


[i] Supposedly West Egg is a parody of Great Neck, which is northwest of Central Islip, but it was a good line so I couldn’t pass it up.

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15 Responses

  1. Putting aside your sound analysis, I really don’t get Matasar’s response. Don’t law schools use waitlists to account for the contingency that more people accept than they expect? Don’t they usually underestimate their up-front acceptances to account for the “very unpredictable” enrollment? If they screw up, wouldn’t they just decline everyone on the waitlist and/or withdraw offers once the class is full? And wouldn’t be reckless to assume that your matriculation rate will be a constant when there’s been a massive rupture to the economic system and your school is suddenly receiving a different pool of applicants?

    • I hadn’t thought about wait lists and withdrawn offers. That does give law schools the final say in class size aside from circumstances when fewer people matriculate than predicted.

  2. NYLS did not just “accidentally” discover in 2009 that the school “is in a prime location to serve the market for B-average prospective law students”. Students in that range have been its group all along. I say range because there is not that much difference between a B and B+ student, even though the plus makes people ( read students) feel better.
    The problem with the NY Times article, and the scam bloggers take on 2009, is that they allege that the school deliberately made offers to more people to get a larger class and more tuition and, or in the case of the Times article, to satisfy bond raters. Instead, the school actually accepted fewer people that year, and more people said yes. Schools cannot control who says yes.

  3. People who are wait-listed are told they are wait-listed. People who are accepted are accepted. You can’t take back acceptances. Decline offers when the class is full! Can you imagine the fallout from telling people they have been accepted, and then later saying, “Oh, never mind?”. How would anyone ever again know whether they were actually accepted at the law school? It would mean nothing. How would you feel if you were accepted to a college/law school- any program- and then weeks later you got a letter telling you the offer was rescinded? I know I would be pretty ticked off.

    We don’t know the number and composition of the people on the wait-list. In colleges and law schools, they are usually people with lesser credentials that the school isn’t really sure about. It is possible, and I am sure it has happened in other places and at other times, for admissions office to miss the mark– especially when as you, J-Dog say, the entire economic system was screwed up. No one knew what the hell was happening or was going to happen. We still don’t. You have to guard against assuming omnipotence in people, maybe especially people you view as enemies. And 2008-2009 was a unique time. The school was in the news, positively, on a number of fronts, particularly the new building and increasing the bar passage rate to over 93%.

    • (1) Actually, a relative of mine had his acceptance to a graduate program rescinded after he’d matriculated, and yes he was very furious. And rightly so. Whether he had a promissory estoppel claim against the university had he moved to the city is another issue, but yes, universities can withdraw acceptances.

      (2) As I stated in the post, I believe NYLS did underestimate the number of people willing to attend in 2009 (hence, “[I]t inaccurately predicted the matriculation yield.”), so on that we agree. That was my entire point behind the portion you disagreed with, i.e. the B/B+ credentials.

      (3) To be clear, without evidence I do not believe Richard Matasar was omnipotent, barking orders to NYLS’s admissions department or otherwise micromanaging it. However universities do have safeguards in place to prevent over-enrollment if they do not wish it. J-Dog’s point is that Matasar never mentions these safeguards in his response. On a rhetorical level he doesn’t have to as Segal didn’t bring it up, but the point is made: we can question the extent to which NYLS’s hands were tied and absolutely had to suffer a higher full-time 1L class than it wanted to. It’s up to Matasar, in theory, to demonstrate why they failed. Even so, as I said, I do think it miscalculated the matriculation yield.

      (4) I should clarify to you that I do not have any personal grudge against Richard Matasar or any other law school faculty. He is not my enemy. He has commented on the subjects I write on, so I write about him. You are free to see what I’ve written on him previously. Not even one week ago I made it clear that David Segal was harder on him than I have been.

      (5) As to the NYLS’s positive news, the point of the post is that it didn’t impress the thousand or so applicants who would’ve applied to NYLS but chose not to. Just because 2008-2009 was unusual doesn’t mean we can’t draw conclusions from evidence from that time period.

      • “To be clear, without evidence I do not believe Richard Matasar was omnipotent, barking orders to NYLS’s admissions department or otherwise micromanaging it. ”

        We have evidence that Richard Matasar was the dean of the law school. That (presumably) gives him authority over the law school admissions department, including hire/fire authority over the people running it. At that point he can make his will known. And since the school’s budget comes from admitted students, it’s not like he’s going to ignore the admission stats.

        Now, it is true that we have no evidence of him barking (vs. meowing?) orders, or of ‘micromanaging’, whatever that means in this situation.

  4. Also, the waiting list does not come into play until the number of acceptances are lower than the class you want. That’s how you work the wait list, to make sure you fill the class. It doesn’t figure in if drastically more people than you want in the class say they are going to show up. In that situation, the wait list does not matter.

  5. Yes, programs can rescind offers. When I said “can’t” I did not mean it was impossible to do so. Institutions can do what they want within the law. The wisdom of doing that is another question.

    I don’t know your relative’s situation, but graduate programs are very different from law schools. I could see a situation where, if he was supposed to be funded (have the whole thing paid for) and the funding was lost, they would rescind the offer.. If the person he wanted to work with, or the program itself, was no longer available, I could see that, too. If he wasn’t funded and was going to pay full freight, It would be interesting to know why they reneged. Most grad programs have been starved for money for years now. It must have been something really important for them to turn away a paying customer.

    NYLS would have had to rescind dozens and dozens of acceptances. That would have been nightmare scenario, something way, way different than a graduate program turning away one or two people. There is no way all those people would have gone away silently.

    I wasn’t suggesting that you were saw Matasar as an enemy. [LSTB: I didn't think that's what you meant, but I had to clarify] It was the previous post that expressed disbelief that the school could have made an error. How could they have not “managed’ the wait list? Precisely how could they have managed the wait list to avoid having more people accept the offer than they expected?

    • NYLS’s “error” as it is, was accepting a higher proportion of applications relative to prior years despite a numeric decline. In the data you’ll note that the 2009 “Offer %” was, like, 10% higher than previous years. This was wholly in NYLS’s control.

      As to disbelief over managing the wait list, that’s NYLS’s problem. If NYLS wants to say it’s powerless over who accepts its offers without telling us what kind of safeguards it has to prevent over-enrollment, it’s our prerogative not to believe it.

  6. Okay, so the school is faced with a significant decline in applications, which could have resulted in having a class much smaller than previous ones. The thing to have done in that situation was to accept even fewer students than they accepted? They did accept fewer students than in past years. So your position is that they should have accepted even fewer? How would they know how many fewer to accept to stave off the entirely unpredictable event that more people than they thought would accept decided to say yes? I am not being flippant, I really want to know how, besides turning accepted people away, could this have been avoided? Reasonably avoided. In hindsight, you can say they should have done this or that–without really saying precisely what this or that should have been. We know how many people actually accepted and that skews the way we think through the issue.

    I’m not saying there wasn’t a problem. It’s attributing specific motives to people’s actions that is a mistake.. Again, not so much what you are saying, but the article.

    No school can determine how many people accept their offers. They manage enrollment by looking at the numbers over the years and making an estimate of how many people are going to say yes. They guard against the possiblity that too many people will say no by having a waiting list to go to fill the class if necessary. When too many people say yes, the waiting list is irrelevant.

    • JMH, in my post, I assume that if there’s a decline in applications, the overall credentials of the applicants decline as well. You’re free to disagree with it, but I think it’s a fair assumption and an important one. When the applicant pool declines, it’s reasonable to assume more people will accept offers as they’ll have fewer acceptances elsewhere, so the admissions office should predict that the “Matriculation %” will increase relative to previous years. This prompted my discussion of NYLS as a market for B students rather than B+ ones: B students are more willing to accept offers and NYLS doesn’t appear to have accounted for this. To answer your question further down, yes I do believe NYLS was caught off-guard, but I think the situation was partially preventable. If it assumed that the “Matriculation %” would’ve been 25% rather than 20% in typical years, it would’ve accepted 50% of 3,403 applicants rather than 57%. Even if 29% accepted offers as actually happened, the entering class would’ve been about 493 students, which is only 10% more than the previous year, not 30%.

      Obviously, if NYLS doesn’t rescind offers or manage its wait-list effectively, it would have a larger 1L class than it may’ve wanted, but the 2009 30% class growth could’ve been prevented if it accepted fewer applicants who got Bs in college, so to speak.

  7. And, Matasar did not say that students were “clamoring” in 2009 to come to NYLS. What he said was that the people who applied to the school wanted to come. That is true. Hence, the too many acceptances. The actions of the overall applicant pool in the US has to be distinguished from the people in the pool who actually applied to NYLS. He was talking about the latter.

  8. My question in an earlier post was not clear. If a school accepts fewer people in order to get a certain class size, and after doing the usual accepting-more- than-will- likely- come (which you have to do),way more people accept than they thought would accept, what do they do? I understand they can use the wait list as a way to manage numbers. But if they are caught off guard by the number of acceptances, what happens? Is the point that admissions offices are never caught off guard or in NYLS’s situation you just do not believe it happened?

  9. ML, I just wandered back to the site and saw your response. I understand your analysis, and you touch upon what was my main criticism of the Segal piece and some of the other writings on the “bulge” class at NYLS: that it was the result of a deliberate plan to either 1. pay for the new law school building or 2. impress bond raters.

    Sure, anytime there is an over enrollment situation, a mistake has been made somewhere along the line, if nothing but underestimating how many people are going to say yes. As I said, it’s a real problem thinking through all of this now when it’s over and we have the numbers and can pick a percentage at which they should have accepted people and could have ended up closer to a typical class. It’s also problematic when there is pre-existing hostility to the institution, and those like it, that makes some observers inclined to say there are no good faith mistakes; all that is done is planned and of evil intent.
    Over enrollment happens often and schools, particularly colleges, are forced to house students in lounges and have classes wherever they can. There is no perfect formula.

    I should say that I have enjoyed the discussion, and was surprised and relieved to be able to have a serious and substantive back and forth without name-calling and vitriol.

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