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June 22, 2010 [feather]
More cooked law school books

It's not just Loyola that's cooking law school transcripts in hopes of giving students a leg up on the job market. This morning the New York Times reports that in the past two years, at least ten schools have done the same. They include Georgetown, NYU, Tulane, and Golden Gate University.

Law schools seem to view higher grades as one way to rescue their students from the tough economic climate -- and perhaps more to the point, to protect their own reputations and rankings. Once able to practically guarantee gainful employment to thousands of students every year, the schools are now fielding complaints from more and more unemployed graduates, frequently drowning in student debt.

They have come up with a number of strategic responses. Besides the usual career counseling measures, many top schools have bumped up their on-campus interview weeks from the autumn to August, before the school year even starts, because they want their students to have a chance to nab a job slot before their counterparts at other schools do.

Others, like Duke and the University of Texas at Austin, offer stipends for students to take unpaid public interest internships. Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law even recently began paying profit-making law firms to hire its students.

"For people like me who have good grades but are not in the super-elite, there are not as many options for getting a job in advance," said Zachary Burd, 35, who just graduated from Southern Methodist University. A Dallas family law firm will receive $3,500 to "test drive" him this August.

"They'll get me for a month or two, for free, to try me out," he said. "It's safer for them, and it's a good foot in the door for me."

Along the way, SMU law school gets to cook its job placement figures.

Back to the doctored transcripts. The Times is quite interesting on this point:

the tactic getting the most attention -- and the most controversy -- is the sudden, deliberate and dubiously effective grade inflation, which had begun even before the legal job market softened.

"If somebody's paying $150,000 for a law school degree, you don't want to call them a loser at the end," says Stuart Rojstaczer, a former geophysics professor at Duke who now studies grade inflation. "So you artificially call every student a success."

Unlike undergraduate grading, which has drifted northward over the years because most undergraduate campuses do not strictly regulate the schoolwide distribution of As and Bs, law schools have long employed clean, crisp, bell-shaped grading curves. Many law schools even use computers to mathematically determine cutoffs between a B+ and a B, based on exam points.

The process schools refer to as grade reform takes many forms. Some schools bump up everyone’s grades, some just allow for more As and others all but eliminate the once-gentlemanly C.

Harvard and Stanford, two of the top-ranked law schools, recently eliminated traditional grading altogether. Like Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, they now use a modified pass/fail system, reducing the pressure that law schools are notorious for. This new grading system also makes it harder for employers to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, which means more students can get a shot at a competitive interview.

Students and faculty say they are merely trying to stay competitive with their peer schools, which have more merciful grading curves. Loyola, for example, had a mean first-year grade of 2.667; the norm for other accredited California schools is generally a 3.0 or higher.

"That put our students at an unfair disadvantage, especially if you factor in the current economic environment," says Samuel Liu, 26, president of the school's Student Bar Association and the leader of the grading change efforts. He also says many Loyola students are ineligible for coveted clerkships that have strict G.P.A. cutoffs.

"We just wanted to match what other schools that are comparably ranked were already doing," he said.

Nearby University of California, Los Angeles, made its grading curve more lenient in the fall of 2005, in part to keep up with "nationwide shifts in grading," said Elizabeth Cheadle, the dean of students at U.C.L.A.'s law school.

The University of Southern California and the University of California Hastings College of the Law responded by increasing their own curves last school year.

What's more, U.S.C.'s law school dean, Robert K. Rasmussen, said he was partly inspired by the school where he previously worked, Vanderbilt University Law School, which had also changed its curve a few years ago.

These moves can create a vicious cycle like that seen in chief executive pay: if every school in the bottom half of the distribution raises its marks to enter the top half of the distribution, or even just to become average, the average creeps up. This puts pressure on schools to keep raising their grades further.

Love the comparison to executive pay.

Of course, disingenuous pseudo-earnest protests of helplessness aside, it doesn't have to be this way. It's not, for instance, at the University of Chicago, which has long had its own tough and idiosyncratic grading system. Having dispensed with the 4 point concept long ago, Chicago stands on its own with employers, rather than in comparison and competition with everyone else.

Worth noting: all this talk of protecting and assisting students is really just another way of packaging an attempt to fool employers and law students into accepting (and financing) the unacceptable. Employers are supposed to not notice that the school is passing off a lesser product as better than it is; students are supposed to regard the cheapening of their credentials as a rationale for the enormous cost of acquiring them. Smokescreens all around--with the ultimate aim being to allow law schools to carry on with business as usual, charging extortionate fees while over-producing under-educated and under-trained young adults who would like to call themselves lawyers. If law schools really were concerned about students' future prospects, they wouldn't falsify student records or abandon evaluation altogether--they'd educate students better, they'd toughen up requirements, they'd make sure students graduate actually prepared to go to work, and they'd charge a lot less.

Law schools are technically supposed to serve students (by educating them) and society (by providing graduates with skills society needs and will pay for). But they have lost track of that, and now seem to be largely in the business of serving themselves. Keyword: business.

posted on June 22, 2010 6:34 AM

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My son is at University of Texas at Austin (undergrad) and this year they changed their grade point average to a +/- system. Some students' averages would go up and others would go down.

An A and an A+ are 4.0.
An A- is now a 3.67.
A B+ is now a 3.33.
A B is a 3.0.
A B- is a 2.67.

Posted by: Suanna at June 24, 2010 3:06 PM