Rankings Pressure as a Motivating Force for Fraud

The Chicago Tribune has picked up on part of the University of Illinois College of Law’s audit report that many readers lament as par for the course. While it’s unknown just how common intentional fraud is at U.S. law schools, the pressure is common among law schools to improve U.S. News rankings. It is easy to see why it sometimes translates to bad behavior.

College of Law admissions dean Paul Pless revealed another motive was at play [in starting its new admissions program]. By admitting high-achieving students in their junior years, without a law school entrance exam, the students’ high GPAs would be included in the class profile but no test scores could potentially drag down the class.

As the former dean’s own words explain:

“That way, I can trap about 20 of the little bastards with high GPA’s that count and no LSAT score to count against my median. It is quite ingenious,” Pless boasted in a 2008 e-mail exchange with an acquaintance about iLEAP, the early admissions program now in its fourth year.

Schools often admit “splitters”—high GPA/low LSAT or high LSAT/low GPA—to achieve higher and higher median scores. Admissions offices are restrained by the need to report the low LSAT or GPA along with the high LSAT or GPA because each low number drags down the median. Pless’s iLEAP program is a way to get credit for the best quality of the splitters (their high GPAs) without the LSAT median sinking downwards.

A review of the investigative file shows the intense culture in which Pless worked, one focused on improving the academic credentials of the incoming classes in part as a means to improving the already well-regarded school’s ranking.

The college’s strategic plans and annual reports focused on that ranking. Pless’ salary increases were tied to it. The law dean and other top officials exchanged emails about the benefits of different combinations of test scores and GPA medians to achieve it.

While most law school administrators wouldn’t so brazenly (and sloppily – professional email communications at a public school are usually subject to open records laws) brag about the novel ways they’ve boosted medians, they all have their bag of tricks. They all know that job security is often tied to maintaining or improving those numbers.

The same pressures exist for improving employment statistics too, though far less is known about intentional changes to underlying employment data. While it’s difficult to spin poor admissions numbers without resorting to fraud, it is far easier to use misleading tactics to dress up the unimpressive reality facing most law school graduates in today’s job market. This is particularly true when the entity charged with policing law schools, the Section of Legal Education, has failed to actively investigate what admissions and career services offices are doing.

It’s odd, to put it lightly, that these pressures exist in the first place. Serious thought needs to be given to the institutional incentives that law schools face, particularly when those incentives seem to run against the interest consumers have in receiving information that’s presented in a fair and accurate manner.

As of now, there are few if any incentives to blow the whistle on unethical admissions practices. It is likely that unethical practices have spread beyond Villanova and Illinois, but they are difficult to catch. These practices would not even be uncovered at the semi-decade inquiries from the ABA site visit teams—an important event for ABA accreditation.

It seems that we may have moved beyond the presumption that all law schools are operating ethically. It’s crucial, for the sake of the schools acting ethically as the gateway to the legal profession, that the bad apples be uncovered. We hope the schools with nothing to hide step up and ask LSAC to audit the past ten years of admissions data at all ABA-approved law schools. The costs of conducting such an audit will pay dividends of restored credibility.