Brian Leiter has just posted rankings of the Top 10 law schools by percentage of transfer students. See Schools that Take the Largest Number of Transfers (Relative to the Size of Their 1L Class). It is generating a lot of traffic, see, e.g, Paul Caron and Larry Ribstein, in part because Brian names names.
Last fall I posted charts that showed the same data ordered by 2007 U.S. News rankings. I took a lot of heat in the comments from readers who wanted to defend these liberal transfers--many by people who benefited from the ability to trade up. This system of liberal transfers has other defenders as well. For example, professors at higher ranked schools often justify these policies by arguing that they are opening doors for hardworking students who have proven themselves. My critique, however, was based on a macro-level social wealth perspective--i.e., do the benefits of liberal transfers policies outweigh the costs? Here are some facts:
More transfers. Between 1997 and 2004, non-academic 1L attrition, which is the ABA-LSAC Official Guide category that would include transfers, has increased at statistically significant levels. See Morriss & Henderson, Measuring Outcomes, Fig. 2 and accompanying text. I would posit that this coincides with a rankings payoff of higher entering credentials, not a rethinking of admissions policies driven by principles of equity and opportunity. We should not confuse colorable justifications, which lawyers are expert at, with underlying motivations of self-interest.
Rankings gains. By the way, these gaming strategies actually produce higher LSAT scores relative to non-gaming schools. See Henderson & Morriss, Student Quality as Measured by LSAT Scores, at 191.
Effects within schools. According to the 2005 LSSSE Annual Report, transfer students were less likely to:
- Perceive their relationships with other students to be as positive as students who did not transfer.
- Work with other students outside of class to complete an assignment.
- Have serious conversations with students who are different from themselves.
- Discuss ideas from reading or assignments with others outside of class.
- Work on a paper or project that required integrating ideas.
- Participate in cocurricular activities.
P. 14-15. The report continues, "These findings underscore that many of the strongest student relationships are formed during the first year of law school before transfer students join the campus community." (p. 15). Note these findings describe group results. Please spare me anecdotes in the comments about well-adjusted transfer students. We cannot generalize, and thus make policy, from individual data points. We need a representative sample, which LSSSE provides.
Harms to Curricular Innovation. If the best students from Tier 3 and 4 are siphoned by Tiers 1 and 2, lower ranked schools have one hell of a time demonstrating the value of their curricular innovations. And these innovations often require immense commitments of time and money. The substantive value may be there, but the school will not get an adequate return on the investment. So incentives to innovate are diluted.
So my point is very simple: Instead of shrinking the 1L class and taking more transfer students, a better system would admit more 1L students using whole person review (the policy that all of the legal academy allegedly embraced in the Grutter litigation) rather than a cynical numbers-driven approach designed to maximize entering credentials for U.S. News purposes. I realize that some people would be made worse off under this system (and these people tend to know who they are, so they are noisy). In contrast, the people who would benefit are largely nameless and invisible. But this approach eliminates the educational costs of excessive transfers and preserves incentives for healthy institutional competition based on curriculum and teaching. From a social wealth perspective, which is better?
At the end of the day, the increase in transfers represents a giant collective action problem. But it could be solved if U.S. News reworked its methodology. The putative regulator here is the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar. Are they even paying attention? I often wonder. After the jump are the charts that show net transfers by U.S. News rank. It is very ugly.