Law school transfer system

For spurned schools, law student transfers prove costly

The law school transfer system benefits individual law students, but it's hardly a boon for the less-prestigious schools that invest in promising students only to see them leave following their first year.

That's the conclusion reached by South Texas College of Law Professor Jeffrey Rensberger, who examined law student transfers for an article in the Journal of Legal Education. Rensberger said Wednesday that he wrote the article largely because little attention has been paid to the subject.

"There hasn't really been a well thought out discussion of transfers in legal education," he said. "People talk about it, but it hasn't been studied in a comprehensive manner."

After analyzing the numbers and patterns of transfer students as well as the overall cost to legal education, Rensberger concluded that the transfer system is inefficient and causes more harm to the schools students leave than benefits to the schools to which they transfer.

The former see losses in tuition money, quality classroom participation, bar passage rates and alumni prestige. The latter gain little, since transfers tend to land at institutions that already enjoy stronger reputations, alumni networks and bar passage rates.

"From the standpoint of legal education as a whole, this is a bad thing," Rensberger wrote. "It may be and probably is good for the student who transfers, but it also imposes costs on those who do not transfer."

Rensberger analyzed class size data provided to the American Bar Association by law schools to identify transfer trends. He found that during each of the past four years, between 2,265 and 2,400 students transferred to ABA-accredited schools. They accounted for about 5% of the national 2L class.

Law schools varied widely, however, in the number of transfer students they accepted. Rensberger looked for the biggest gainers, and found that 26 schools had 2L classes with 10% or more transfer students (five of those schools had 20% or more transfer students). Most schools, however, had 2L classes in which transfer students comprised 5% or less.

Unsurprisingly, transfer students tended to move toward schools with higher rankings, as determined by U.S. News & World Report, Rensberger found. That casts doubt on the idea that most law students transfer because of changes in their life situation, he wrote.

Similarly, students tended to transfer to schools with higher bar passage rates. Schools with a net gain had an average bar passage rate of 88.2%, while net loser schools had an average of 78.9%. Additionally, transfers gravitated to law schools with higher median LSAT scores. It didn't appear that most transfer students were lured by lower tuition.

"On the whole, transfers slightly increase the cost of legal education for those transferring," Rensberger wrote. "Moreover, the financial effect on schools that receive high volumes of transfers and schools which lose high volumes of transfers is large."

For instance, he reported, the school that received the most transfers saw a $3.4m increase in revenue as a result, while the school that lost the most students forfeited $5.2m.

When one student transfers out, schools must replace that lost revenue by accepting a transfer student in his or her place, Rensberger wrote. That new student likely will have credentials inferior than the one who left — and the move creates similar problems for the law school from which he or she came.

Furthermore, the transfer of students who perform well during their 1L year most likely depresses the bar passage rates of their original law schools, he continued. At the same time, it may boost the bar passage rates at the schools into which the students transfer. The benefits to the new school and the loss to the old school are not equal, Rensberger concluded.

"The loss of a few percentage points in pass rate is much more significant to a school that is already struggling with a pass rate below the state average," he wrote. "In short, as to bar pass rates, transfers have the effect of making the rich richer and the poor poorer; and in the context of bar pass rates, poverty is more significant than wealth."

Along the same lines, the transfer of promising students decreases the quality of classroom discussion at the original law schools, since those students tend to represent the "cream of the academic crop," Rensberger wrote.

Similarly, transfer students create a net loss of high-performing alumni for the schools they leave behind. "Law schools are stronger when their alumni are stronger," he wrote. "An alumnus who is an especially successful practitioner, an esteemed judge, or even an academic adds to the reputation of the school."

Finally, the student transfer system may help law schools game the U.S. News rankings, since they can boost their selectivity scores by admitting fewer 1Ls and set higher LSAT cutoffs. They can then fill that gap with 2L transfers students who had lower LSAT scores, since they won't affect the median LSAT figure used in the rankings.

Even the benefit to the transferring students is suspect, according to Rensberger. Most students transfer because they believe that graduating from a higher-ranking law school will help their career, he wrote. But the benefits of graduating with "an undistinguished record from a distinguished school" may not outweigh graduating at the top of the class at a lower-ranked school.

"The bottom line on transfers is that they are not bringing anyone new into the law school pipeline," Rensberger said. "We're shifting people around without adding any talent or diversity. That's what makes me wonder about the utility of it."

(Published by - May 25, 2011)

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