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October 17, 2011
Senators Ask Department of Education For Law School Numbers
I wrote last week about Senator Boxer’s latest inquiry to the American Bar Association. See Senator Boxer Calls Out ABA On Jobs Data And Scholarships. I asked at the end of that post if any other Senators had any questions. Apparently Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has a few. How law schools are managed and accredited is now a bipartisan issue, a rare occurrence in Washington these days. I would not call Senators Coburn, Boxer, and Grassley ideological partners otherwise.
The latest letter is joint inquiry from Senators Coburn and Boxer and this time it’s directed not to the ABA but to the Department of Education’s Inspector General. The Senators are asking for statistical information schools normally report to the ABA, though this time sourced from the Department’s own (independent) records. The full letter is here. The specific questions to the Department are:
To better understand trends related to law schools over the most recent ten-year window, we request your office provide the following information:
1. The current enrollments, as well as the historical growth of enrollments, at American law schools – in the aggregate, and also by sector (i.e., private, public, for-profit).
2. Current tuition and fee rates, as well as the historical growth of tuition and fees, at American law schools – in the aggregate, and also by sector (i.e., private, public, for-profit).
3. The percentage of law school revenue generated that is retained to administer legal education, operate law school facilities, and the percentage and dollar amount used for other, non-legal educational purposes by the broader university system. If possible, please provide specific examples of what activities and expenses law school revenues are being used to support if such revenue does not support legal education directly.
4. The amount of federal and private educational loan debt legal students carried upon graduation, again in the aggregate and across sectors.
5. The current bar passage rates and graduation rates of students at American law schools, again in the aggregate and across sectors.
6. The job placement rates of American law school graduates; indicating whether such jobs are full- or part-time positions, whether they require a law degree, and whether they were maintained a year after employment.
This can mean one of two things: the Senators do not have confidence the ABA’s statistical reports and its answers to previous letters, or they want to see if the Department of Education collects this kind of information as well. If not, it’s a strong suggestion that the Department should start and maybe get involved in setting its own standards for schools. There are no tables that cover this kind of information in the Statistical Abstract of the United States. It’s one thing for law schools to fudge job data and the like for U.S. News rankings and web site puffing. It’s another to lie to a federal agency. Something more than ABA censure might be in play in the latter situation.
Let’s take a moment and look at question 3 in more detail. The context for that comes from an earlier paragraph in the letter:
The Baltimore Sun recently reported on the resignation of the Dean of the University of Baltimore (UB) Law School, who said he resigned, in part, over his frustration that the law school’s revenue was not being retained to serve students at the school. In his resignation letter, UB’s Dean noted: “The financial data [of the school] demonstrates that the amount and percentage of the law school revenue retained by the university has increased, particularly over the last two years. For the most recent academic year (AY 10-11), our tuition increase generated $1,455,650 in additional revenue. Of that amount, the School of Law budget increased by only $80,744.”
The LLB covered the story of Baltimore’s handling of Dean Phil Closius in a series of posts. See Chapter Three in the Continuing Baltimore Law Saga: "Junking the Stats" in Public "Cockfight" between UB President and Fired UB Law Dean as an example, with links to previous coverage.
The ABA doesn’t like to get involved in these types of disputes, preferring to view them as internal matters at each school. That approach tends to give university administrations breathing room when it comes to dealing with their dirty laundry law schools under the accreditation rules, sometimes with unpleasant consequences. Getting the Department of Education to care in circumstances where the ABA might not is a classic approach to placing pressure on the accreditors. The ABA need not respond publicly as the letter is not addressed to the organization. Still, it must feel the heat. University administrators might feel that same heat if the Department of Education is pushed into asking schools some tough questions.
The Senators, I suspect, are counting on the Department as not necessarily being as vested in the ABA as the ABA is with the law schools it oversees. I think that is the whole point of this strategy. It will be fascinating to see what comes out of this. Should we get the Government Accountability Office involved next? [MG]