"The number of students attending law school and the amount that they borrow is increasing, while their ability to secure jobs and pay back loans is decreasing as jobs disappear," Grassley said. "The result is that millions of federal guaranteed taxpayer dollars are being borrowed at the great risk that many students may not be able to repay the loans."
The issue has been percolating for some time, and took on intensity with the collapse of employment in the legal market in 2008 and 2009. Hiring has since picked up at law firms, although not to the degree of before the start of the recession.
As Grassley's letter indicated, many law students rely on graduate employment data not only for selecting the profession, but also for choosing law schools. When Villanova University School of Law disclosed in February that admissions data of incoming students, used to compile national rankings, had been inflated for a time before 2010, it triggered a new round of speculation about the reliability of not only admissions data but also of law school reporting on the success rate of graduates in finding jobs.
In his letters, Grassley focuses on student-loan default rates and their impact on taxpayers, who finance the loans. He suggests that default rates increasingly are tied to the flagging legal job market, and presses the ABA to explain how it incorporates employment data into its evaluation of law schools.
Such concerns are not merely the province of politicians or abstract academic inquiries. Students and alumni, spurred perhaps by the grim job market, have been agitating for more reliable employment and admissions data.
After the Villanova news broke, student body presidents from 55 law schools proposed legislation that would require schools to submit data to the U.S. Department of Education, which would have responsibility for ensuring accuracy. Separately, the ABA has appointed two committees to look into revamping reporting requirements in an effort to better inform prospective students.
Temple Law School dean JoAnne A. Epps said she welcomed the additional scrutiny but added that much of the criticism was a result of inadvertent imprecision. She said law schools had been criticized for including graduates with nonlegal jobs in their employment data.
Four or five years ago, when every graduate could find a job as a lawyer, that wasn't a problem, she said, so no one thought to make the distinction. But now, with a smaller legal job market, more graduates are working outside law.
"I think it is perfectly appropriate for people to ask law schools to make sense of the statistics they report. That is a completely fair question," Epps said.
In its response to Grassley, the ABA noted that its section on legal education and admissions queries law schools each year on the credentials of entering classes, enrollment, finances, and other matters. Failure to respond can result in withdrawal of accreditation, the ABA said.
"No one could be more focused on the future of our next generation of lawyers than the ABA and the legal profession we serve," the association's president, Stephen Zack, wrote to Grassley.
But in a follow-up letter, dated Aug. 8, Grassley seemed to suggest that the ABA had done too little to confront the impact of the downturn in legal employment on law students. His letter also suggested that the membership of the ABA's accreditation committees was heavily weighted toward academics and law schools and was not representative of the legal profession.
The implication seems to parallel that of the law students, that data released by law schools, and the way the information is applied in the accreditation process, might serve the interests of the law schools more than students or taxpayers.
Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or email@example.com.