Quick Link: The National Law Journal Wants Us to Pity Low-Prestige Law Schools

Karen Sloan, “For Spurned Schools, Law Student Transfers Prove Costly,” in the National Law Journal

Sloan reports on a hilarious law journal article by South Texas College of Law professor Jeffrey Rensberger who thinks we should pity law schools that see high caliber students flee to schools selling more reputable degrees.

Unsurprisingly, transfer students tended to move toward schools with higher rankings, as determined by U.S. News & World Report, Rensberger found. That casts doubt on the idea that most law students transfer because of changes in their life situation, he wrote…

“The bottom line on transfers is that they are not bringing anyone new into the law school pipeline,” Rensberger said. “We’re shifting people around without adding any talent or diversity. That’s what makes me wonder about the utility of it.”

Of course transfers don’t have a net effect on law student quality. Why would we think otherwise? Moreover, why would we not expect the majority of transfers to be for prestige?

After analyzing the numbers and patterns of transfer students as well as the overall cost to legal education, Rensberger concluded that the transfer system is inefficient and causes more harm to the schools students leave than benefits to the schools to which they transfer.

The former see losses in tuition money, quality classroom participation, bar passage rates and alumni prestige. The latter gain little, since transfers tend to land at institutions that already enjoy stronger reputations, alumni networks and bar passage rates.

No, the latter gain more tuition dollars with no (negative) effect on their LSAT/GPA data.

[T]he school that received the most transfers saw a $3.4 million increase in revenue as a result, while the school that lost the most students forfeited $5.2 million.

When one student transfers out, schools must replace that lost revenue by accepting a transfer student in his or her place, Rensberger wrote. That new student likely will have credentials inferior than the one who left — and the move creates similar problems for the law school from which he or she came.

I can’t believe anyone thinks we should care about law schools losing money from out-transfers. As for the intermediate schools in the transfer chain, after the 1L year, no one’s credentials matter, so the transfer student need only be able to pay and pass the bar. If anything, I’m surprised more intermediate level law schools aren’t reorienting their business models towards poaching large numbers of average students.

Furthermore, the transfer of students who perform well during their 1L year most likely depresses the bar passage rates of their original law schools, he continued. At the same time, it may boost the bar passage rates at the schools into which the students transfer. The benefits to the new school and the loss to the old school are not equal, Rensberger concluded.

“The loss of a few percentage points in pass rate is much more significant to a school that is already struggling with a pass rate below the state average,” he wrote.

If the original law school has a bar passage rate below the state average, then it’s got bigger problems than brain drain. Accept better students or lose your accreditation. Welcome to the University of La Verne.

Finally, the student transfer system may help law schools game the U.S. News rankings, since they can boost their selectivity scores by admitting fewer 1Ls and set higher LSAT cutoffs. They can then fill that gap with 2L transfers students who had lower LSAT scores, since they won’t affect the median LSAT figure used in the rankings.

Even the benefit to the transferring students is suspect, according to Rensberger. Most students transfer because they believe that graduating from a higher-ranking law school will help their career, he wrote. But the benefits of graduating with “an undistinguished record from a distinguished school” may not outweigh graduating at the top of the class at a lower-ranked school.

These are valid points. However, if law schools want to prevent horrible, horrible brain drain, here’s an idea: cut tuition and enrollments, and teach to the bar exam. Oh wait, if they did that, they’d lose more money than by suffering out-transfers.

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