Friday, November 13, 2009

Truth in Recruitment and Welfare for Professors

When I was in college, friends of mine got summer jobs selling encyclopedia. They first went through a training session that was astounding in the level of deception they were taught. They were actually "giving away" the books to "chosen" families. All those families had to do was buy the yearly supplement. My friends learned how to hand a book to a customer so he or she could just barely grasp the edge of the book. This made the book seem heavy. And there was a single page inside the sample volume that they would yank on to show show how solidly the books were constructed.

If you are thinking I am going to say Laws Schools are in the same league you are wrong. But there is a continuum. The encyclopedia scam is at one end. Unfortunately, I cannot say Law Schools are at the opposite end. Interestingly, though, they are in the same general business --selling knowledge.

In the case of Law School what they sell is closer to a lottery ticket. Graduates have some probability of hitting it big financially or maybe not hitting it at all. I have in the past defended Law Schools against claims of false advertising by noting that no one forces students to go to law school, some students are just interested the knowledge, and all students know or should know that they may or may not have a winning ticket. What we do know from a recent article is what we already knew, at least for the last several years. The average value of those tickets is pretty low. More technically, the average return to the law school investment is not very high.

All of this leads to two related concerns I have. First, shouldn't there be a truth in recruitment law that says every law school must reveal to applicants: 1. Bar passage rates; 2. Average starting salaries of graduates; 3. Placement rate (and I do not mean the data sent to USN&WR which includes students law schools hire to increase their rankings) and 4) the average rate of return for the investment in the education provided by that school?

My second is whether states should be competing to sell legal education. It's one thing to provide a subsidized legal education to those who want it. It's another to go out and pitch what you are offering to prospective customers. Why try to convince students to come and take advantage of a state subsidy? If we were in the state subsidized health care business would we plead with people to come to us, perhaps for treatment they do not need, as opposed to not coming at all or at least paying the tab for their care themselves if they are able. A micro version of this is summer foreign programs. What does it mean if a state school's foreign program only has enough students to make ends meet if it has to beat the bushes to find students to attend. Something seems out of whack.

Maybe what is going on this this. State law schools are not for the students at all. They are really for the teachers. If no customers showed up -- possibly as a result of truth in recruiting -- there would be little need for as many professors. In fact, if the rate of return to legal education is low it also means that the professors are not producing something that the market values. In any other context that means going out of business. If so, maybe public legal education is actually welfare for professors.

Thank goodness!