Entering credentials of transfer students are irrelevant to U.S. News ranking calculations. As a result, many have speculated that transfers are fertile ground for U.S. News gaming. This post examines data on 2L transfers, which the ABA recently collected and released in the 2008 Official Guide. In short, there are a lot of transfers, particularly to schools with high U.S. News rankings. Here the breakdown by US News Tier:
USNWR '07 Net Transfers
Tier 1 +694
Tier 2 +223
Tier 3 -114
Tier 4 -739
Why am I posting on transfer students? That is an important subtext. During a recent conversation, hiring partners at one of the nation's largest and most prestigious firms (biglaw X) complained to me that they were running across a lot of transfer students at elite law school Y (where pre-screening is not permitted) with nondistinguished 1L records from Tier 2 or 3 schools. As a follow-up to our conversation, I crunched the numbers from the 2008 Official Guide.
But the more salient issue is how firm X responded in the absence of hard data. Because the transfer students could not meet the grade cutoff for an interview at their old school, (a) they did not receive a callback, (b) firm X wasted 30 minutes x 2 lawyers for each incident, and (c) a perception took root that elite law school Y was diluting its product through an unprincipled transfer policy designed to "sell" 2L admission at full tuition price in order to constrict and subsidize a smaller crop of 1L students with higher LSAT scores--and through the process, increase its US News ranking. The hiring partners had a clear, unflinching grasp of the underlying dynamics. Did administrators at law school Y really believe that no one would notice?
In our Student Quality as Measured by LSAT Scores study, Andy Morriss and I theorized that a heavy intake of transfer students was likely the preferred gaming strategy of high ranked schools (lower ranked schools, in contrast, relied upon part-time programs). For schools who were in the U.S. News first quartile in 1992, constriction of the 1L full-time class over the next 12 years was associated with larger gains in median LSAT scores. (At the time, we lacked the data on transfers, which we thought would reveal a revenue-neutral strategy that worked in lockstep with 1L constriction.)
But here are the difficult institutional questions:
- Reputation. Is a slight increase in median 1L LSAT scores worth the damage to a law school reputation among employers? Arguably law school Y's biggest mistake was taking all comers rather than building a larger pool of transfer applicants. Apparently, some Tier 1 and 2 law schools actively solicit transfer applicants and thus can be more selective. Over time, this could easily evolve into a second, substantial admissions process.
- Payoffs to the school. Although students and faculty may be jubilant over a bump in the rankings from #14 to #12, or #22 to #19, are more opportunities thereby available to graduates, especially if the gaming strategy is being flagged by key employers?
- Payoffs to transfer students. And what about the students with nondistinguished records from lower ranked schools who incurred huge debt for a elite credential in order to subsidize a high LSAT 1L--are these transfer students, with a paucity of callbacks and no 1L peer relationships, clearly better off? See 2005 LSSSE Report (showing heightened social isolation for transfer students)
- Externalities on legal education. Can we all agree that any underlying increase in U.S. News rank has zero substance? If so, should the ABA crack down on law schools that divert a lot of resources toward recruiting 2L students for no other purpose than boosting entering credentials of 1Ls?
Without further ado, here is the graph for transfers (Tiers 1-2), ordered by 2007 U.S. News rankings and normalized as a percentage of each school's graduating class [click-on to enlarge]. In Tier 1, Georgetown (+14%) and Washington University (+18%) have the largest net inflow of transfer students. In Tier 2, the big net gainers are Florida State (+20%) and Rutgers-Camden (+16%). The graph for Tiers 3-4, in many respects the mirror opposite of Tiers 1-2, is after the jump.