In a time of rising tuition prices and declining job prospects, looking at the value proposition of going to law school is more important than ever. For the second year in a row, the National Jurist has named the 60 best value law schools in its preLaw magazine. From these 60 schools, it has further honored the top 20 value schools (unranked for now, but to be ranked, one through twenty, in October).

For the second year in a row, the methodology used to formulate these rankings needs to be much better if anybody is going to pay attention. The National Jurist recognized law schools as “best value” schools if they met four criteria:

1) their bar pass rate is higher than the state average;

2) their average indebtedness is below $100,000;

3) their employment rate nine months after graduation is 85 percent or higher; and

4) tuition is less than $35,000 a year for in-state residents.

We’ll get to naming the top 20 in a minute. First, we need to break down these inputs — inputs that could have been so much better and more relevant…

Let’s go through the criteria for inclusion on this list, one-by-one:

1) School Bar Pass Rate v. State Bar Pass Rate

You see what they are trying to get at here, but this is a dumb and lazy way of doing it. Having a bar passage rate above your state’s average doesn’t take into account the quality of people your state allows to sit for the bar. Maybe your state lets people from unaccredited schools sit for the exam? Maybe your state is just huge and has a large number of people eager to sit for the bar?

By way of example, the state passage rate for the July 2009 New York State bar exam was 72%. But the passage rate of students from ABA-accredited schools in New York was 88%. Arguably all accredited schools in New York could meet the National Jurist’s first standard for value, making this entire factor somewhat useless. And really, if you are attending a school that sports a 73% bar passage rate in a state where 72% of the people pass, that school is not giving you good value. Instead, that school is stealing your money and laughing at you while they’re doing it.

2) Indebtedness below $100K

It’s the first time they’ve included this factor, and thank God they did. Personally I think indebtedness should be adjusted based on CoL factors, and I think $100K is kind of a random number picked more for its roundness than its relation to any solid economic factor. But this is a start. If students are graduating with more debt than they can bear, whatever that number turns out to be, then that has to be included in any discussion about value.

3) Employment statistics

Here we go again. The self-reported employment statistics coming out of American law schools right now are meaningless, because the schools themselves resist all efforts to break out whether or not these jobs are permanent, temporary, or straight-up illusory, due to deferments or on-campus employment or some other factor. A kid working as a baby sitter for a law professor a year after graduation gets to be called “employed.” We need to stop asking the fox to count the number of chickens in the hen house.

4) In-state tuition < $35,000

Speaking of totally arbitrary figures, this part of the methodology is another aspect that is just stupid. As former judge Paul Cassell wrote on the Volokh Conspiracy when these rankings came out last year:

Finally, the rankings seems to give undue weight to tuition price. Perhaps the rankings should be “cheapest” law schools, as the value component doesn’t seem very well thought out.

Let’s say U. Conn. Law was charging $34K, while Yale was charging $36K? Which one do you think would be a better value? It insults the intelligence of prospective law students to say that there is an arbitrary tuition figure beyond which the law school isn’t a good deal. Don’t get me wrong — there might well be some point beyond which no law school, no mater how well-respected and prestigious, is a good value. In fact, for all we know, the cost of legal education might already be well beyond that point.

But if there is a price point beyond which legal education ceases to have value, it’s not an arbitrary point. Northwestern Law School Dean David Van Zandt has done work trying to figure out the break-even salary a graduate has to achieve to make law school worth it. That’s a useful enterprise, and if Dean Van Zandt can do it, I don’t see why the National Jurist can’t. There’s very likely a number here, but pulling $35K out of a hat is lazy and hurts the credibility of the entire ranking system.

So, with that as a disclaimer, here are the top 20 schools, listed in alphabetical order (they’ll be ranked one through twenty in October):

Brigham Young University (Clark)
Florida International
Florida State University
Georgia State University
Louisiana State University–Baton Rouge (Hebert)
Northern Illinois University
Phoenix School of Law
Texas Tech University
University of Alabama
University of Georgia
University of Kansas
University of Kentucky
University of Louisville (Brandeis)
University of Memphis (Humphreys)
University of Mississippi
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
University of New Mexico
University of North Dakota
University of South Carolina
University of Tennessee – Knoxville

To see the other 40 best values schools, check out the National Jurist.

The problems I listed above really come to the fore when you see some schools on the list that U.S. News tells us are not very good. U.S. News could be wrong, of course, but they do set the standard. If you are going to challenge that standard, then you need to give people something more than random numbers and arbitrary cutoffs.

I mean, even the slow to act/respond/understand federal government is starting to get a clue about the dangers of some of this low-hanging fruit, at least when it comes to for-profit universities. From Reuters:

The for-profit colleges have just been enrolled in the school of hard knocks. Many of these educators spent the past decade feeding happily on federal loans to students — many of which default. New data released on Monday suggest just how tough the future may be for the sector, sending many shares down 10-20 percent. More regulation and higher costs are coming.

The government is now cracking down. The U.S. Education Department has proposed restricting admissions growth or cutting federal funding if not enough students can repay their loans. This would partly be based on starting salaries following graduation. The significance of these new schoolyard rules can’t be understated: federal aid makes up at least three-quarters of revenue at many for-profit educators.

If the feds are truly ready to take a look at graduate outcomes before giving away loan money, then a list like this becomes more important than ever. If the list could be done right.

Unfortunately, this one isn’t. The sad thing is that law students desperately need to know which law schools are worth the exorbitant prices they charge. But this list adds… nearly no value.

Best Value Law schools announced [National Jurist]
For-profit colleges get schooled by new reality [Reuters]


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