Mike Stetz 2017-11-08 06:00:49
We celebrate 60 law schools that offer affordable, quality education. And so it finally happened. In the past year, two law schools announced they would close. The dire predictions — first made when law school enrollment began cratering — have come to pass. And what was one of the primary reasons why both Whittier Law School and Charlotte School of Law met that fate? It’s simple. They did not offer value. The schools charged high tuitions, pushing many students deep into debt. And the students got little back for their money. The schools’ graduates did poorly on the bar, and many could not land jobs. There is no value in any of that. Indeed, both institutions are the very antithesis of those schools that made pre-Law magazine’s annual Best Value Law Schools’ list. We honor those institutions that keep student debt manageable as well as provide a quality education so students can pass the bar and get legal jobs. So, if you’re looking for which law schools to target, this list can be, well, invaluable. For one thing, it’s important to consider how much debt you can absorb in relation to the legal career you’re seeking. If public service is your goal, watch your debt. That field, while rewarding, does not pay Big Law kind of money. If you like the state of Georgia, we’ve got good news. This year’s top schools for value are located in the Peach state. Atlanta-based Georgia State University College of Law and University of Georgia School of Law, in Athens, finished first and second, respectively. Both schools rocked the house across the board. They had low debt, strong bar-passage rates and excellent employment scores. Those are among the key variables the magazine uses to measure value. A poor performance in bar passage, for instance, can damage a school’s showing. After all, one needs to pass the bar to practice law. “It is part of our mission; it drives our thinking,” said Georgia State University Interim Dean Wendy Hensel, of offering value. “It is a priority for us.” By comparison, those two failing law schools scraped the bottom of our list. Whittier Law School ranked 197th out of 200 law schools, and Charlotte ranked 199th for best value. Average debt at Charlotte School of Law was $140,000. At Whittier Law School, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., the average student walks out $180,000 in hock. Both had abysmal bar-passage rates, with Whittier recording a 38 percent success rate recently. Charlotte School of Law students didn’t fare much better. In the February 2017 test, only 25 percent of its students passed. Charlotte ’s overall performance was so dismal that the America Bar Association put it on probation, and federal loans to students were discontinued, forcing the school to close. Such results have been why critics have been hounding legal education during the past several years, saying some schools were taking too many marginal students and failing to give them the academic support necessary to pass the bar, much less be successful attorneys. Whether that is true or not, there remain a significant number of schools where value is a benchmark. This year, 60 of the nation’s 204 ABA-accredited law schools make our list. Granted, they are not the Yales and Harvards of the legal education world, but they don’t pretend to be. Look at Alexander Blewett III School of Law at University of Montana, where yearly tuition is $11,451, one of the least expensive of all law schools and 12th on our list. (Yale Law School’s tuition is just under $60,000 a year.) However, if you’re not the Ivy League type — and not many of us are — you can still go to a solid, academically challenging school. Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School has the second-lowest tuition on the list, at $12,310. And it’s one of the nation’s top law schools, according to a number of rankings. It’s 14th on our Best Value list. Many of the schools have been recognized repeatedly, showing that they consistently offer good value. Look at University of Nebraska College of Law, for instance, which finished first the past two years. This year, it’s fifth. The average student debt is $62,888, the second lowest in our top 10. That trails only The University of South Dakota School of Law, which had a debt of $55,609, the lowest of all law schools. One doesn’t see average student debt climb past the $100,000 mark until the 36th school on our Best Value list, University of Texas School of Law. While that school’s debt eclipses six figures, its employment rate was among the top of all the leading Best Value Schools, at 86.1 percent. We consider all of the variables vitally important, but finding work is the ultimate goal of a law student. Pennsylvania State University, Dickinson Law, in Carlisle, Pa., earned a B+ and a spot on this year’s list, thanks to an employment rate of 88.8 percent. University of Minnesota Law School earned a B+ last year thanks in part to an employment score of 84.6 percent. This year it earned another B+, helped by an ever better employment rate of 86.5 percent. Another key factor in keeping your law school price tag down is the cost of living. Try living in New York for three years. Or Los Angeles. Or Lexington, Ky. That last one? Call U-Haul. The home of University of Kentucky College of Law is one the most affordable places to live on our Best Value list, at $15,832. It helped the school notch a ninth-place finish. However, it was University of Idaho College of Law, with campuses in Moscow and Boise, that had the lowest cost of living. It was just above $10,000 and earned an overall A-. Other schools excel in bar passage. Check out The University of Alabama School of Law, another school that routinely makes our top 10, finishing eighth this year. It’s bar-passage rates are among the highest in the nation, even rivaling Ivy League schools. The 2015 test-takers eclipsed the 91 percent mark. Keeping debt low This is not easy. Maintaining value in these times is challenging, given the pressures facing law schools, said Georgia State’s Hensel. Resources are thinning. The competition for quality students has heated up. Applications to law schools have dropped 35 percent in recent years, she said. But she calls her law school “scrappy” and “innovative,” traits that have helped it continue its mission of offering quality education at an affordable price. Look at student debt. It was below $65,000. The surprising thing is that the school actually managed to lower it from the year before, when it was more than $66,000. (Georgia State University finished fourth in last year’s analysis.) Georgia State University seeks to attract diverse, underserved students, Hensel said. Bringing such people into law is more important than ever, given the challenges our society faces, she said. It’s growing more fragmented and polarized and undergoing widespread change. Just check out cable news. Last year, the school started a new center, the Center for Access to Legal Justice. There’s a growing need to help the poor get quality legal assistance when they need it. For many, it’s either unaffordable or unavailable. They may face a host of serious problems, from long-term housing needs to domestic violence protection. And students, if they wish, are able to enter public interest or government service practice areas because they don’t have the amount of debt that students going to more expensive schools often accumulate, Hensel said. “That’s part of our DNA,” she said. Other schools on our list also have a strong commitment to public service. Indeed, City University of New York was founded to train attorneys to go into that practice area. And CUNY earned a B+ this year offering value as well. That means students can pursue their dreams of helping the little guy. CUNY’s tuition is $14,663 and debt is only $78,523. Mind you, this is a New York City law school. Other Best Value schools do well in an area that’s vital to public service education, and that’s practical training. Students take part in clinics and externships to get hands-on training. Many clinics serve people who can’t afford or don’t have access to legal services. Legal educators say this training helps students become more efficient attorneys. In short, it offers value. The University Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law finished fourth in last year’s preLaw ranking of Best Schools for Practical Training and 13th on this year’s Best Value list. University of Wisconsin Law School came in eighth for practical training and fourth in Best Value. Hensel said many students are attracted to Georgia State University to give back, to help the poor and underserved. Still, she’s surprised more millennials are not considering legal careers. The application drop-off has her puzzled because of the power that attorneys can have in social justice causes. “Lawyers are on the front page of the newspaper every day,” she said. “They are critical, critical players in society right now. [Becoming a lawyer] is an extraordinary path to a meaningful life.” Legal education has been hit hard with criticisms the past few years, which likely has had an impact, she said. However, she believes the attacks were not targeted accurately. Law schools that charge high tuitions but don’t deliver quality education should have been singled out because those schools are failing Bar-passage blues We did discover one pattern in our Best Value analysis. Many law schools have seen bar-passage percentage drops. While many remain above state averages, they have dipped from historical highs. Take Georgia State University. In July 2016, the bar-passage rate was 82.6 percent, down from the 94.5 percent in 2008. Many of the nation’s law schools are experiencing the same worrisome trend. One theory is that schools have been forced to lower admission standards to fill classes. Some are taking students with increasingly low LSAT scores. The two failing law schools, for instance, had lowered standards so much that a number of legal education experts predicted the students would ultimately do poorly on bar exams. Georgia State University is well aware of the problem and addressing it, Hensel said. The school uses data analytics to scrutinize student performance to see if any “warning points,” exist, she said. With that, the school can intervene and help the student when and where he or she needs it. “We put science into this.” Her school is hardly alone in using progressive measures to address bar passage. Florida International University College of Law in Miami has been one of the best performing Florida law schools when it comes to bar passage. It helped push the school into this year’s top 20 for Best Value. In the July 2016 test, 87.5 percent of the graduates passed, which led all Florida schools and beat the state average by nearly 20 percentage points. It was the third straight time the school led all Florida schools, which include powerhouses such as University of Florida Levin College of Law. Not only is University of Florida highly ranked academically, it’s No. 3 on our Best Value list, as well. And Florida State University School of Law came in 16th. Count ’em. That’s three Florida schools in the top 20. The state is yet another destination, again if you can stomach humidity … Florida International University’s bar passage performance even got the snarky Above the Law website to give it a shoutout: “Guess Which Law School Dominated The Florida Bar Exam? It’s Not Who You’d Expect …” So what’s the magic formula? “We teach students how to learn,” said Professor Raul Ruiz, director of the school’s bar preparation. “It’s science. It comes down to science.” He drops terms such as “metacognition” and “spaced repetition learning” and “increasing cognition load.” Learning is far beyond memorization, he said. Indeed, our brains only retain 20 percent of what we learned in three days time. So the school teaches students how to “kick up knowledge” by consistently reviewing what they’ve learned. For him, this is a huge deal. Pass the bar exam and you become a working lawyer. Fail it and you can’t be a working lawyer. “It’s the end game,” he said. That the nation’s law schools are seeing worsening bar results worries him. “It absolutely breaks my heart,” he said, noting how many law students enter the field because they want to do good for the community. He’s unsure as to why this is happening. Law school is as demanding as ever, he said. The LSAT decline may have something to with it, but Florida’s top law schools have not admitted students with declining scores yet they have seen bar passage slip too, he said. “We don’t have enough data,” Ruiz said. While passing the bar is critical for success, law school is more than preparing students for the exam, he said. Creating a challenging and rewarding law school experience is key, he said. Teaching students how to be critical thinkers is the job of law schools. And some are indeed failing to do so, he said. He’s also not surprised by the recent law school closures, noting that both schools were struggling with bar passage. Legal education has responsibilities that go beyond producing lawyers. It also must protect the public by making certain the prospective students do indeed have the chops to be quality lawyers. “If not, what value are you bringing here?” Ruiz asked. Lincoln Memorial’s ascent Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law once grappled with its ability to offer value. Started in 2009, it floundered in its early years, unable to win accreditation from the American Bar Association. It went as far as to sue the ABA regarding its decision, only to reverse course and change leadership and institute reforms. It paid off. Three years ago, the ABA granted the Knoxville, Tenn. school provisional accreditation. And this year, it makes preLaw’s Best Value list, earning an A-. (Last year, it finished 13th among Best Value Private Law Schools.) How? Lincoln Memorial’s student debt is below $90,000. Secondly, it’s upped it bar-passage performance. The school came in first in last year’s analysis by The National Jurist magazine of law schools that outperformed their expected bar-passage rate. The magazine looked at student LSAT scores to see how schools should most likely perform. Lincoln Memorial’s predicted pass rate for the 2014 exam was 62.85 percent, but 78.57 percent of its students passed. “In reality, we had no way to go but up,” said Gary Wade, vice president and dean of the school. Even when the ABA declined accreditation, the university remained confident, especially after 81 percent of the school’s inaugural class passed the bar exam. That helped remove doubt that the school could provide a quality, affordable education, he said. Making law school accessible to students from all economic backgrounds is key, he said. The school’s mission is to train students from southern Appalachia, one of the nation’s poorest regions. “It’s our essence to be affordable,” Wade said. Making the list is tough for private schools. That’s because state universities — which dominate the list — normally get some measure of taxpayer support. Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va., is another private school making the list, earning an A-. It had not made the list the previous two years. While it’s debt was more than $100,000, it performed well in employment and bar passage. It’s unfortunate that legal education is seeing institutions close because of the impact it is having on students and the reputation of the legal profession, Wade said. Indeed, his school has taken nearly 40 former Charlotte Law School students. The school has worked hard to welcome them and offer them a fresh start, particularly given what they have gone through. “They feel valued as students,” he said. Best Value Methodology The Best Value Law Schools ranking recognizes the law schools where graduates have excellent chances of passing the bar exam and getting a legal job without taking on a ton of debt or expense. preLaw ranks schools using this formula: percentage of graduates who pass the bar exam (15 percent); employment rate (35 percent); tuition (25 percent); cost of living (10 percent); and average indebtedness upon graduation (15 percent). All data comes from the ABA with the exception of average indebtedness, which comes from U.S. News & World Report. For employment, we used a weighted employment number, which gives more weight to full-time, bar-passage-required jobs. The formula is available at iaals.du.edu/educating-tomorrows-lawyers/projects/numbers/calculator-tool-researchers-and-media
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