Slate Thinks LSAT-Takers Are Clairvoyant

The law-school shills at the Law School Truth Center inform us that Slate gives us, “One Group of Law School Applicants That’s Growing: High-Scoring Students.”

I will keep this quick.

Jordan Weissman argues that the ~7.5 percent growth in law school applicants in the 170-174 and 175-180 LSAT brackets this year is a sign that “the right people” have decided to go to apply to law school again.

It might have helped readers if he’d told them that these applicants only account for about 5 percent of the total applicant decline since 2010.

Change in Applicants by LSAT Score Share of Net Change in Applicants (2010-2014)

(Source: LSAC, Slate, author’s calculations)

It turns out about two-thirds of the decline has been in applicants with scores below 160 and 86 percent with scores below 165, so once again the lesson is that the real right people, i.e. the ones employers don’t really want to hire, are getting the message.

As for the high-LSAT scorers, part of Weissman’s problem is that people who take the LSAT do not know ex ante what their scores will be. Sure, many people study for the exam, but the proportion of “pleasant surprises” increases the higher the bracket. It’s possible that a lot of the non-applicants are people who would have done very well on the LSAT but were not confident of that fact in advance of deciding not to take the test. It’s pretty unlikely that many applicants had a high LSAT score in hand but chose not to apply.

Grade Inflation: It Depends How You Define ‘Educational Quality’

On VoxEU, we have Raphael Boleslavsky and Christopher Cotton’s, “The unrecognized benefits of grade inflation.” The authors write:

Our analysis reveals a surprising link between grade inflation and investment in education quality – schools invest more when they are allowed to inflate grades than when grade inflation is banned. …

With grade inflation, student transcripts convey less information, and therefore the employer relies less on transcripts and more on school reputation when evaluating graduates. In this way, grade inflation increases the incentives that schools have to undertake costly investments to improve quality of education, and the average ability of their graduates. To the extent that school investments and a student’s own study efforts are strategic complements in human capital development, students who anticipate greater investments by schools in turn have greater incentives to increase their own efforts. [Emphasis LSTB]

You could replace the emphasized bits about “education quality” with “wasteful spending” or the like and you’d have an accurate description of what goes on at law schools.

For instance, we have expanding faculties:

Law School Faculty Per School (Calendar-Year Average, Index 1999=100, Excl. P.R.)

(Source: Official Guide, author’s calculations)

We have lots of internal grants and scholarships:

Spending on Internal Grants and Scholarships Per Law School (2013 $)

(Source: ABA (pdf), Bureau of Labor Statistics, author’s calculations)

We have no (net) positive impact on job outcomes:

Percent Employed by Status (NALP)

(Source: NALP)

We have a decline in legal sector labor productivity:

Legal Sector Labor Productivity (2005=100)

(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

…And all this is covered with tuition hikes on the poor souls who are paying full tuition (if that):

Median Full-Time Law School Tuition (2013 $)

(Source: ABA (pdf), FinAid.org, Bureau of Labor Statistics, author’s calculations)

None of this is necessarily the result of grade inflation, which the authors’ model takes to be endogenous when I happen to think it’s exogenous (Hell, even the law school deans say so). If anything grade inflation is a symptom of the same pressures the schools are under to signal their degrees’ prestige to employers. But job outcomes is most of what this all comes down to. If there weren’t such a wide dispersion of jobs and salaries, then there’d be less motivation to engage in these kinds of wasteful behaviors. The free student loans are the accelerant.

However, there’s no reason to believe that, in the face of grade inflation, colleges and universities would improve their reputations by carefully investing in better student outcomes; rather, they would invest the bare minimum of what the employers want to see—not what actually makes the graduates more productive. That’s why the employers complain about how law students take frivolous courses but keep hiring from elite law schools nevertheless.

Revealed preferences, people. Revealed preferences.

The ABA Task Force Might Not Think Grad PLUS Loans Are a Problem

…But Barack Obama certainly doesn’t either. Mere days after the ABA Journal tells us of the skepticism of some members of the ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education about the effect student loans have on law school pricing, MainStreet.com informs us that the Obama administration is proposing new rules that would further reduce the already lax underwriting standards for Grad PLUS loans. If the administration has its way, prospective borrowers will no longer have those pesky 90-day-plus-delinquent debts held against them by the Department of Education.

And just how many grad students are denied Grad PLUS loans due to bad credit? ED tells us that they numbered about 129,100 between March 2013 to February 2014, but don’t worry, 65,507 were able to remediate the department’s decision via appeal or endorsement. ED data also tell us that Grad PLUS loan three-year cohort-default rates are below one percent. Care to know how many of them are on IBR? Well too bad: The “non-Federal negotiators” who met with ED officials before ED proposed the new rule didn’t think to ask that. (Source here and here)

Borrowers might also be able to exclude $2,000 in delinquent debt from their federal credit checks as well.

“The Obama administration is committed to keeping college accessible and affordable and helping families make thoughtful and informed choices to fund a higher education in today’s economy,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “These changes allow us to continue to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and open the doors of college to ensure all students have the opportunity to walk through them.”

Right. Something tells me Arne Duncan will never be held accountable for the student debt balloon he helped birth.

The MainStreet.com article then focuses on Parent PLUS loans that end up wiping out the parents because their kids are broke after college. However, you shouldn’t let that lull you into discounting the Grad PLUS variety. In the 2012-13 academic year, Uncle Sam issued $10 billion in Parent PLUS loans and $7.7 billion in Grad PLUS loans, which have been rapidly catching up in volume despite having half the number of recipients. That means people who take out Grad PLUS loans are likely to borrow larger sums than Parent PLUS loan borrowers. (Unless Parent PLUS borrowers are double-counted when they’re married couples or whatever.) Grad PLUS borrowers take out about $22,800 on average compared to the $14,000 for Parent PLUS borrowers.

On the bright side, Grad PLUS borrowers can throw all their loans onto protracted, bureaucratic, chapter 13 bankruptcy IBR and let the government eat the write-down if they’re largely unpayable. Parent PLUS borrowers aren’t so lucky.

54,527 Law School Applicants in 2014

…Which is down from 59,426 in 2013, an 8.2 percent decline. It appears the number of applicants is plateauing. The number of applications is down to 352,406; it was 385,358 last year. This and more you can read on the LSAC’s Web site.

Last year I speculated that the applicant decline would be 6,000, but it was lower at 4,900. I’m surprised that so many people are interested in law school. I sincerely thought the drop in applicants would be sharper than it’s been. Maybe the siren song of tuition scholarships is too much to resist.

Here’s what this year looks like compared to previous years.

No. Applicants Over App Cycle

No. Applications Over App Cycle

Interestingly, the number of applications per applicant has stabilized.

No. Applications Per Applicant

Last year’s decline clearly meant that the types of people who weren’t applying were those who would submit their applications early in the cycle. That’s still true to a great degree: The number of applicants from week 10 until the end is roughly the same at about 12,000. Week 4 to week 10, by contrast, has plummeted from 26,700 in 2010 to 15,700 this year.

2014 also differed from previous years in that the number of applicants didn’t really “accelerate” into the cycle based on a comparison of average monthly estimates of the final count to the actual number of applicants.

Average Monthly Final Applicant Estimate Variance

For example, last February it looked like there would be 56,500 applicants, but in June it looked like it’d only be 53,000. These are further indicators of a plateau in the decline.

Next year, though, I bet we’ll see an unusual sight: The number of applicants will be less than the number of incoming 1Ls in 2010 (52,448). I think by now everyone acknowledges that this applicant collapse is unprecedented, but that factoid should really bring it home.

Go in peace.

The Future of the College Premium Debate

A few months back I picked up a copy of Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality, edited by David Cay Johnston, who signed it when I hobnobbed with the (liberal) one percent a few months back. Its essays make for quick reads on planes, trains, and other forms of transit. One contribution by Jared Bernstein titled, “Inequality Across Generations,” struck me. At the end he advocates “‘college for all who are able’ … as an ambitious investment in building human capital assets for the disadvantaged.” (The essay was originally published in 2007.)

Curious, I looked on Bernstein’s blog and found a 2012 post in which he discusses whether college graduates in low-skill jobs still get a wage premium. The answer’s yes, but I’ll scrutinize why he says so in a moment.

But first, readers keeping score at home will recall that we’ve been sternly warned that regression analyses of higher education “premia” that control for occupations are invalid because “occupation is an outcome variable and not a pretreatment covariate.” And scorekeepers will also recall that I think that argument throws out standard economic theory on occupational wages. When your only tool is regression analysis, every omitted variable looks like a bad control.

(To defend Divided, one of its essays, “Why Do So Many Jobs Pay So Badly?” by Christopher Jencks, states, “The logic of a market economy is that we should all be paid the smallest amount that will ensure that our work gets done, and that is what low-wage workers generally receive.” (68))

I’m not alone, however. Bernstein wrote his blog post in response to findings by two researchers, Paul E. Harrington and Andrew M. Sum, who estimated that in 2012 half (!) of all college graduates under 25 were unemployed or employed in jobs that don’t really require much college education according to the Labor Department. Harrington and Sum should be better remembered for taking on Georgetown University’s Anthony Carnevale, who in 2010 estimated a shortage of college grads by 2018.

Please stop laughing. This is serious.

Harrington and Sum irresponsibly threw all caution into the wind and controlled for occupation in their analysis of college outcomes. They found, unsurprisingly, that college graduates in low-skill (“non-college”) jobs earn significantly less than college graduates in higher skill (“college”) jobs. The literature they cite calls this phenomenon “malemployment.” Harrington’s and Sum’s findings tend to show that occupations matter quite a bit for earnings, leading them to conclude, “If malemployment among college graduates simply does not exist, as the Georgetown forecasters [Carnevale] argue, then there should be little difference in the earnings among college graduates regardless of whether they were employed in college labor market occupations or not.” You can see their results charted in their response to Carnevale in all their brutality.

 

H&S Malemployment

(Yes, you read that right: Although it’s obviously a typo, advanced-degree holders in New England in 2009 earned just 6.6 percent more than high-school graduates if they were in non-college jobs. The next question is how well advanced-degree holders did if they found college occupations—rather than non-college occupations—that didn’t require any advanced training.)

To clarify, it doesn’t matter for Harrington and Sum if you think college mainly signals preexisting abilities or creates Very Important Human Capital. Their point is that there just aren’t enough college jobs to go around.

Bernstein, as well as David Neumark, another college-for-all academic, disagrees with Harrington’s and Sum’s methodology. Both argue that researchers should measure the college wage premium within occupations, and when they do so it’s huge. I’ll stick to Bernstein, since he kicked off today’s adventure:

Bernstein Premium

(Ironic that for all the drinking that supposedly goes on in college the intra-occupational premium for bartenders is scant. Guess they’d learn more about serving drinks in class?)

You might be tempted to ask how, exactly, college makes people 50 percent better at childcare, for example. I think I’m good with children, but it’s not because in my Plato seminar I read the Timaeus, where Socrates recommends educating children the rulers deem worthy and dumping the inferior ones onto the ranks of the proles. (This is also the dialogue where Plato talks about the (metaphorical!) island of Atlantis, which, sadly, is probably the thing he’s best known for.) Neumark, Bernstein, and those who agree with them are invited to satisfy your temptations. For my money, there’s almost no human capital effect on low-skill occupations.

I think it might be useful to go through the occupations Bernstein lists and show their wage dispersions. It turns out that even for the best case scenarios, Bernstein’s big premiums don’t account for a lot in annual earnings.

Occupation Intra-Occupational Premium 10th Percentile Annual Earnings 50th Percentile Annual Earnings 90th Percentile Annual Earnings
Retail Salespersons 49% $16,830 $21,140 $38,820
First-Line Supervisor of Retail Salespeople 42% $23,490 $32,700 $62,830
Waiters/Waitresses 20% $16,300 $18,590 $29,810
Customer Service Reps 45% $19,640 $30,870 $50,570
Cashiers 34% $16,420 $18,960 $27,710
Receptionists and Information Clerks 31% $18,330 $26,410 $38,170
Office Clerks 20% $18,040 $28,050 $45,340
Childcare Workers 49% $16,430 $19,600 $29,770
Home Health Aides 26% $16,690 $21,020 $29,480
Bartenders 9% $16,400 $18,920 $32,780
High School Grad, FT (25+) N/A $15,000-$17,499 $35,636 $70,000-$72,499
Bachelor’s-Degree Holder, FT (25+) N/A $25,000-27,499 $56,929 $100,000+

(Source Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) (2013), Census Bureau Personal Income tables. There’s some apples-to-oranging going on here as Bernstein’s premiums are for 18-30-year-olds and the OES wage ranges are for all ages. I’m also unclear on what Bernstein means by “less than college” in his table, which might include college dropouts or just be high-school graduates who never go to college.)

My point is even if a college education vaults someone into the upper earnings percentiles of a given non-college occupation, there’s little hope that he or she will earn as much as the median full-time college graduate. In many cases such individuals won’t even earn as much as the median high-school graduate. Some premium!

Although Bernstein wrote his post two years ago, the intra-occupational premium is really the endpoint of the debate on the college premium—once you’re willing to recklessly contaminate your regression results with bad controls based on the standard theory heresy that people will be paid “the smallest amount that will ensure that the work gets done” irrespective of educational attainment or student debts.

Except I can’t imagine someone at The New York Times deploying results like Bernstein’s with a straight face. Being in the 90th percentile of waiters/waitresses still means being a waiter/waitress. No, the media will just stick to the misunderstood Average College Graduate, who’s bound to be named Time‘s Person of the Year at some point.

In the meantime I hope we’ll see more work like Harrington’s and Sum’s, which I recommend reading.

NALP’s Fuzzy Definition of ‘JD Advantage’…

…Is largely the same as the ABA’s, but that’s not the point, which is that you should read:

NALP’s Fuzzy Definition of ‘JD Advantage’

on The American Lawyer. It’s probably the first time I’ve written on this curious topic.

I don’t have any music for you as I’m beating a virus today that’s hampering my productivity. Since my organs haven’t liquified yet, I’m ruling out Ebola.

Peace.

NYT Says People Who Use BLS Inflation Data Are Conspiracy Theorists

Do not adjust your TV set. You did not leap into a parallel universe, and I am not suddenly sporting an evil Van Dyke. After enlightening us on how the Labor Department tracks inflation in higher education costs, the Timesresident champion of the elusive average college graduate, David Leonhardt, smugly compared anyone who uses government inflation data in good faith to conspiracy theorists like ShadowStats who think the government is cynically manipulating cost data.

(I’m using an image here instead of a block quote to show you I’m not kidding.)

(I’m using an image here instead of a block quote to prove I’m not making this up.)

One hastens to point out to Leonhardt that using the government’s published indexes, notwithstanding their flaws, to make an argument is not the same as (a) claiming the government is lying, or (b) cooking one’s own measurements based on repudiated methodologies to sell Web site subscriptions at fixed nominal prices. (For the record, I use Education Department data on college costs, though that’s probably problematic as well.)

So what prompted Leonhardt’s self-satisfied editorialization?

Answer: He discovered that until 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracked college tuition inflation by their stated prices and not their “net tuition” costs, which the bureau now largely tracks. It’s an interesting finding, but it deserved to be raised more professionally—and with better reasoning.

Leonhardt’s argument is that reporting on college tuition costs based on BLS data is “exaggerated” and “deeply misleading” because those data exclude financial aid discounts. He adds that only rich families pay sticker price and then compares college costs to retailers (e.g. Joseph A. Banks) that continuously discount their prices, making their sticker prices meaningless. Hence, he boasts that he’s knocked away yet another (sic) pillar people use to criticize the value of college education.

So what’s the problem here? One, the Joseph A. Banks comparison doesn’t work at all. Retailers that engage in psychological discounting in fact discount their prices—for everyone. They do not ask customers what their annual household incomes are and then charge them (in)appropriately. Colleges really do charge some people sticker price, so the sticker prices aren’t fictitious. Leonhardt hedges this fact by telling us this doesn’t matter because, allegedly, only rich families are charged full price.

The response, my second point, is if this is true so what? What are they paying more money for? Has the quality of education increased for people who pay sticker price? If you’re going to say that these students are paying for the privilege of learning with subsidized, smart people, then you’re going to have to prove that they actually learn more as a result. I’m also going to ask you to estimate when the marginal benefit of adding one more smart, subsidized student to an incoming class outweighs the additional cost to a given student paying full tuition. Note also that “graduating from college while well off” does not in fact ensure that a graduate will be well off going forward.

Finally, Joseph A. Banks’ prices are transparent once customers walk in, see the sticker, and do the math. Colleges, by contrast, advertise a *cough* *garble* *cough* percent-off sale. If this isn’t “real” inflation, why can’t families know up front what they will be charged?

I agree that the BLS should track inflation based on what people pay for goods and services holding the quality of those goods and services constant. However, the best Leonhardt can say about his discovery is that the composition of household spending on college has changed such that some students are asked to pay much more than they would have in the past so that other students can pay about what they would have in the past. If anything, this is a reason to track sticker price inflation, not ignore it.

Leave it to The New York Times to publish a blogger who trolls critics for using government data and then defines inflation away. Maybe Yale should give him an honorary B.S. in applied sophistry.

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