Breaking: Coburn, Boxer Call for Department of Education to Examine Questions of Law School Transparency

A third United States Senator has formally recognized the importance of law school transparency.

In a letter to the Inspector General of the Department of Education, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) have asked the IG to examine American law schools. The Senators will use the IG’s resulting report to inform Congress as it considers whether and how to reform the Higher Education Act.

One goal of this investigation is to better understand certain trends related to law schools over the past ten years. In particular, the Senators are concerned with the growth of enrollments and costs, budgets, graduate debt, bar passage rates, and employment rates. Notably, the Senators emphasize the importance of the legal employment rate.

These questions will point to unsettling answers. While we expect some of the trends to be relatively flat, including the percentage of people employed in legal jobs and bar passage rates, others will show a relatively steep incline.

In particular, enrollment growth at ABA-approved law schools is roughly 14.6% since 2001, while the total number of schools has grown by 8.7%. Meanwhile, over the same period, the total number of law degrees awarded has increased by 16%.

The amount of debt is perhaps most concerning. Over this same period, public ABA-approved law school attendee debt has increased 48% to roughly $69,000. The amount borrowed for those attending private ABA-approved schools increased 51.5% to roughly $106,000. Without much needed reform, these numbers will continue to rise.

Law School Transparency cares about much more than law schools providing adequate consumer information. Continued pressure from Congress, lawsuits, and other reform advocates will push law schools to honestly evaluate the American legal education model. However, reimagining a broken model will take a lot more than letters and getting people their day in court. We hope to see additional congressional inquiries. Legal educators need to answer hard questions about the current, expensive model in order to determine how to reduce costs. We look forward to working with all interested stakeholders as these issues continue to progress.

Senator Coburn and Senator Boxer Letter

October 13, 2011

Ms. Kathleen Tighe
Inspector General
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20202-1500

To help better inform Congress as it prepares to reform the Higher Education Act, we write to request an examination of American law schools that focuses on the confluence of growing enrollments, steadily increasing tuition rates and allegedly sluggish job placement.

Recent media stories reveal concerning challenges for students and graduates of such schools. For example, The New York Times reported on a law school that “increased the size of the class arriving in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded.” The New York Times found the same school is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country and has tuition and fees set at $47,800 a year but reported to prospective students median starting salaries rivaling graduates of the best schools in the nation “even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount.”

Other reports question whether or not law schools are properly disclosing their graduation rates to prospective students. Inside Higher Ed recently highlighted several pending lawsuits which “argue that students were essentially robbed of the ability to make good decisions about whether to pay tuition (and to take out student loans) by being forced to rely on incomplete and inaccurate job placement information. Specifically, the suits charge the law schools in question (and many of their peers) mix together different kinds of employment (including jobs for which a J.D. is not needed) to inflate employment rates.”

Media exposes also reveal possible concerns about whether tuition and fees charged by law schools are used directly for legal education, or for purposes unrelated to legal education. For example, The New York Times reports “law schools toss off so much cash they are sometimes required to hand over as much as 30 percent of their revenue to universities, to subsidize less profitable fields.” 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.”

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.

In your final analysis, please include a description of the methodology the IG employed to acquire and analyze information for the report. Please also note any obstacles to acquiring pertinent information the agency may encounter.

We thank you in advance for your time and attention to this matter. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions concerning this request.

Sincerely,

Tom A. Coburn,
M.D. United States Senator

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator