What They See, What They Get
WASHINGTON -- As scrutiny of law schools has increased over the past year, with students bearing increasing loan debt and having more difficulty finding jobs to pay it off, law school deans and professors have come in for criticism. But on the front lines of the battle, dealing with sometimes skeptical prospective students, has been another group: admissions officers.
In a session at the Association of American Law Schools' conference here Friday, admissions officers spoke of their balancing act: recruiting students without promising more than law school can provide.
“You can run the risk of being a little overzealous in your sales techniques,” said Alicia Cramer, assistant dean of admissions at the South Texas College of Law, in a presentation at the session, titled in part "What They See and Hear Is What They Get! Or Is It?" “And that, I have found, can come back to haunt you.”
Not surprisingly, Cramer and her fellow panelists said that admissions offices should be as transparent as possible with prospective students, including disclosing job placement statistics that are as detailed as possible. But they also suggested a few ways to deflect the rising concern, such as emphasizing students’ own responsibilities in finding a job. And when prospective students set their hearts on a certain law school, panelists said, they sometimes hear what they want to hear.
For the admissions officers and the schools, the stakes are high. In three class action suits, recent graduates have sued their law schools, saying the schools provided deceptive job placement statistics that were effectively false advertising. Admissions officers sometimes feel under pressure from administrators to recruit the best students and will assuage any concern -- promising accessible faculty even if they know that is not the case, for example, Cramer said.
The job can be a balancing act, especially if senior administrators discourage admissions officers from releasing more data than required by the American Bar Association, or overenthusiastic admissions representatives promise more than they can provide. As critical media coverage of law schools has increased, applicants have also become more savvy about the questions they are asking, said Tracy Simmons, assistant dean for admissions at the Chapman University School of Law.
The admissions officials recommended having conversations with students about some of the flash points in what has become known as the crisis of legal education: providing as much information on job placement rates as possible and letting students who have been offered scholarships know how likely they are to keep them.
Both Chapman and the South Texas law schools report employment statistics that are more detailed than the ABA requires on their websites, breaking out whether graduates are employed in fields that require bar passage or a J.D. (at South Texas) or how many are employed in temporary positions (at Chapman).
Still, there have been some missteps, the admissions officers acknowledged. One student accepted a full scholarship at Chapman that required her to keep a certain grade point average, turning down a partial (but guaranteed) scholarship elsewhere, after an admissions representative told her there was no chance she would lose the funding, Simmons said. “We didn’t allow her to make an informed decision,” she said, adding that the university was able to help her find other financial aid. “Our deans were very concerned she was going to turn around and sue us.”
The anecdote illustrated the importance of disclosing as much information as possible, she said. “We really aren’t doing ourselves, nor are we doing the applicants, a service if we don’t share the information with them,” Simmons said.
But the admissions officers also said that the current employment situation is in part a function of the economic downturn, and several (on the panel and in the audience) said they qualify the placement statistics by telling applicants that they don’t know what the future holds.
Even with increased transparency, they said, some students will never be satisfied. David Jaffe, associate dean of students at the Washington College of Law at American University, emphasized students’ responsibility for their job searches and professionalism, and shared a profanity-laden e-mail the law school's career services office recently received from a student. “If you’re not going to do anything for me, refer me to someone who f-ing will,” Jaffe read aloud, omitting the expletive. The student went on to write, Jaffe said, that “at the bare minimum, you should be working 24/7 to get me a job.”
“At the end of the day, you’re going to have students whose expectations cannot possibly be met,” Jaffe said.