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Essay on how nonelite law schools can survive an existential market threat

The current existential threat to many law schools represents the canary in the coal mine for higher education.

Law schools have typically long enjoyed budget surpluses, and the universities in which they sit have benefited. But over the last few years, the financial situation of most law schools has reversed. Facing multiple years of declining enrollment and public support, alongside increasing costs and tuition discounting, law schools often are no longer a source of surplus revenue. Many law schools now are relying on financial support from their universities to stay afloat. This reversal is a harbinger for the rest of higher education, which is beginning to face some of the same challenges.

The steps law schools are taking -- in the hope they can survive just long enough for precrisis status quo conditions to return -- represent a doubling down on their traditional strategies. What’s so punishing is that because the precrisis status quo is gone forever, they are only worsening the overall outlook for the sector.

As we write in our new research paper published by the Clayton Christensen Institute, “Disrupting Law School: How Disruptive Innovation Will Revolutionize the Legal World,” the precrisis status quo is gone in large part because of the disruption of the traditional business model for the provision of legal services. Simply put, disruption is lessening the need for lawyers, which means law schools are producing too many lawyers for positions that increasingly do not exist.

Disruptions are bringing three significant changes in the legal services market.

First, from LegalZoom to Rocket Lawyer, more affordable, standardized and commoditized services now exist in an industry long dominated by opaque, highly customized and expensive offerings only accessible on a regular basis to a limited part of the population.

Second, from ROSS to the Practical Law Company, to e-discovery and predictive coding, disruptive innovations are allowing traditional law firms and general counsel’s offices to boost their productivity and perform the same amount of work with fewer lawyers. New technologies are able to do tasks that lawyers -- particularly entry-level lawyers -- performed traditionally. This is hollowing out the job market for newly minted lawyers.

And third, disruptive innovations are breaking the traditional rationale for granting lawyers a monopoly on the practice of law. Just as disrupters like Southwest Airlines and Uber changed who could operate in highly regulated industries, if a nonlawyer aided by software can provide the same service as a lawyer, then it is not the public but the lawyers who are being protected by the legal profession’s monopoly on the provision of legal advice.

State regulators of bar licensure are taking note. Some states are beginning to experiment with providing non-J.D.s limited licenses to provide legal services that until now only J.D.s could provide. The state of Washington was the first to license legal technicians -- non-J.D.s who are specially trained to advise clients in a limited practice area, in this case family law. Akin to a nurse-practitioner, under new regulations, a limited license legal technician (LLLT) can perform many of the functions that J.D.s traditionally performed. Only two years old, this new model is already gaining traction outside of Washington; the bars in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Utah are each considering similar steps.

Because there are fewer jobs for lawyers, fewer people are seeking to enroll in law schools -- hence the crisis.

When disruption is afoot, incumbents typically remain tethered to their longstanding habits to sustain themselves. In the context of an increasingly competitive marketplace for law students, this is playing itself out in a quest to retain prestige in the legacy system for ranking law schools, the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Law schools continue to chase prestige by luring students whose LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages will help them move up the rankings. They are attracting students by offering tuition discounts -- during the 2013-14 school year just under 40 percent of law students paid full tuition.

But this push to retain prestige in turn reduces revenues and places the schools in a vicious cycle as the expenditures to remain competitive and improve continue to escalate, as has been true in all of higher education.

Lawsuits challenging the veracity of claims that law schools make around job placement are increasing, and if a verdict goes against a law school, the floodgates against them could open that much wider.

On top of all these challenges, higher education itself is, of course, seeing a variety of potential disrupters emerge, all powered at least in part through online learning.

To this point, disruptive innovators have not directly attacked law schools by offering new versions of a legal education. But were entities to emerge that paired online learning, with its flexibility and competency-based learning attributes, with place-based boot camp-type clinical experiences that trained students to practice law in a more affordable and practice-oriented fashion, the pressure on law schools would only increase.

We see four possible solutions for nonelite law schools.

First, launching an autonomous entity is a proven way to combat the impact of disruption. By harnessing an existing law school’s superior resources to pioneer the disruption and create enough separation so the parent entity’s existing processes and priorities do not stifle the new entity, a law school-based educational start-up could itself become the first disrupter.

Second, schools could use online learning technologies as a sustaining innovation to improve learning and control costs. By blending online learning with face-to-face instruction, law schools could incorporate more active learning and professional skills development into the existing three-year educational model.

Third, they could specialize by creating programs that allow J.D. students to focus deeply on a particular area of law. Students could learn core subjects through online, competency-based programs and their in-person experience would focus on extensive training in a particular area of law through experiential learning courses, live-client clinics, simulations, capstones, directed research and writing, moot court and trial advocacy exercises, and field placements.

And, finally, innovative law schools could build new, non-J.D. degree programs that specialize in training students for careers that combine elements from law, business and government -- in international trade, for example -- but do not fit neatly into existing law, business or government schools and are less time-consuming and expensive than, say, a joint J.D.-M.B.A. Or they could offer new credentials that prepare non-J.D.s for the many fields that intersect with the law but do not require a J.D. degree, such as regulatory compliance.

The future is coming for law schools; the question is whether law schools themselves will play a role in shaping that future or be shaped by the cascading circumstances surrounding them.

Michele R. Pistone is a professor of law at Villanova University's Charles Widger School of Law and an adjunct fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Michael B. Horn is a cofounder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute and a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions.

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The problem with Trump's proposal on student loans and the liberal arts (essay)

The most significant challenge facing higher education today is our growing economic segregation. College completion rates for those at the lowest socioeconomic rungs continue to lag far behind those of their wealthier peers, not only due to diminished financial resources but also because of a lack of social and cultural capital. Redressing this phenomenon will require offering an education that prepares each and every student for success in work and life, while inspiring them to take seriously their social responsibilities in a society plagued by persistent inequities.

In fact, the board of directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where I serve as president, expanded the organization’s mission in 2012 to embrace both inclusive excellence and liberal education as the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice. The addition of inclusive excellence as one of AAC&U’s foundational principles reflects the ideal that access to educational excellence for all students -- not just the privileged -- is essential not only for our nation’s economy but, more important, for our democracy. Democracy cannot flourish in a nation divided into haves and have nots.

The equity imperative as an essential component of educating for democracy has been at the forefront of my mind during the past few weeks of nonstop coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. I have been particularly focused on the potential impact of various higher education policy proposals on AAC&U’s objective of advancing a public-spirited vision of inclusive excellence as inextricably linked to liberal education.

While higher education issues were pretty much absent from the Republican convention speeches, an earlier proposal by Donald Trump, developed by Sam Clovis, his educational policy adviser, to restrict eligibility for student loans in order to make it more difficult for those at “nonelite colleges” to major in the liberal arts previously caught my attention. Indeed, I am convinced that, if enacted, it would risk exacerbating what Thomas Jefferson termed an “unnatural aristocracy,” where only the wealthy gain the benefits of the kind of broad and engaged liberal education that Clovis himself insists is the absolute foundation for success in life.

Trump’s proposal makes at least two serious errors about the value of a college degree in today’s world. It assumes, first, that one’s undergraduate major is all that matters and, second, that only some majors will prepare students for success in the workplace. The evidence from AAC&U’s own surveys of employers, and from many economists, suggests that this is simply not the case. As noted in the title of our 2013 report of employers’ views, “It Takes More Than a Major,” more than 90 percent of employers agree that “a graduate’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Students can develop such cross-cutting skills in a wide variety of chosen disciplines, if the courses are well designed and integrated within robust, problem-based general education programs.

A student’s undergraduate experience, and how well the experience advances critical learning outcomes, is what matters most, with 80 percent of employers agreeing that all students need a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences. A liberal education fosters the capacity to write, speak and think with precision, coherence and clarity; to propose, construct and evaluate arguments; and to anticipate and respond to objections. And it offers what employers value the most: the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings, to engage in ethical decision making and to work in teams on solving unscripted problems with people whose views differ from one’s own. In a globally interdependent yet multicultural world, it is precisely because employers place a particular premium on innovation in response to rapid change that they emphasize students’ experiences with diverse populations, rather than narrow technical training.

The data confirm what we already know: students in all undergraduate majors can and should gain the outcomes of a broad liberal education. Therefore, we need to be vigilant in rebutting accusations of irrelevance and illegitimacy leveled specifically at the liberal arts and sciences and to recognize those charges for what they are: collusion in the growth of an intellectual oligarchy in which only the very richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to the liberal arts traditions. Trump’s ostensible presumption that college is only about workforce training is dangerous to our democratic future.

Of course, it is unclear whether a proposal to use student loans to steer students away from certain majors could be implemented, given the challenges of predicting career trajectories based on majors and types of institutions. (After all, I was a philosophy major who began at a community college under funds from the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, Pell Grants and Perkins Loans.)

Still, in order to restore public trust in higher education and destabilize the cultural attitudes at the basis of Trump’s policy proposal, we need to demonstrate in a more compelling way to those outside of the academy, Democrats and Republicans alike, the extent to which we actually are teaching students 21st-century skills, preparing them to solve our most pressing global, national and local problems within the context of the workforce, not apart from it. To do so, our institutions of higher education must come together to engage in an honest assessment of our effectiveness and undertake a collaborative exchange of best practices. Our shared commitments to equity, democratic and economic vitality, and inclusive excellence demand nothing less.

Lynn Pasquerella is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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Democratic platform spurs excitement for advocates of free community college

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After taking a backseat to debate over free tuition at four-year public colleges, free community college advocates see chance to build momentum.

Feds Cut Aid Eligibility at 3 Medtech College Campuses

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday said it was cutting off federal student aid eligibility at three Medtech College campuses, located in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. A department investigation found "egregious misrepresentation of job placement rates" by the Medtech campuses, alleging that the for-profit college overstated placement rates to its accreditor, the department and prospective students.

The three campuses enroll a total of roughly 750 students, the department said, and received about $16 million in federal grant and loan aid in 2014-15. To continue to be eligible for federal aid at its other campus locations, the company must post a letter of credit equal to 80 percent of its annual federal aid revenue, worth about $37 million.

Slight Drop in Colleges in Heightened Cash Monitoring

The Education Department has released a new list of colleges and universities under heightened cash monitoring, which means that they are subject to far greater oversight than other colleges in federal student aid programs. A variety of compliance issues can land a college on the list. Most of the colleges on the list are for-profit institutions.

The latest list, which has 513 colleges on it, was current as of June 1 and may be found here. That total is down slightly from the 528 colleges on the March 1 list.

The Education Department started releasing the lists last year in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Inside Higher Ed.

Layoffs for Largest Boot Camp Provider

General Assembly, the largest coding and skills boot-camp provider, has laid off 50 employees, which is roughly 7 percent of the New York City-based company's work force, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. Jake Schwartz, the company's CEO and cofounder, told the newspaper that the layoffs were to make sure “we are completely self-sustainable and ready to control our own destiny for as long as it takes.”

Access to venture capital recently has tightened for many start-ups, the WSJ reported. General Assembly reportedly brought in $70 million in revenue last year. The company plans to make an announcement soon about new strategic investments, Schwartz said, while it seeks to continue growing a relatively new corporate training program.

Amazon-Wells Fargo partnership on private student loans troubles consumer advocates

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The online retail giant's promise to provide "discounted" student loans through a new partnership with Wells Fargo elicits concerns from consumer advocates about possible duping of students.

Education Dept. spells out new student borrower protections

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Education Department's 56-page memo details new guidelines for student loan servicers.

Donations Exceed $180,000 for Student Living in Tent

A second-semester student at Gordon State College in Georgia has received more than $180,000 in donations after campus police officers discovered him living in a tent near a college parking lot. Two officers responded to a call about the tent on July 9, the Barnesville Herald-Gazette reported, and asked the man inside to come out with his hands up. The occupant, 19-year-old Fredrick Barley, emerged and presented police with his Gordon State student ID. He explained that he’d ridden six hours from his hometown on his brother’s 20-inch bicycle ahead of classes resuming to register for courses and find a job. He carried with him only a duffel bag, a tent, a box of cereal and two gallons of water, according to the Herald-Gazette.

Barley reportedly had been living on campus for three days when he was found, riding around on the undersize bike to complete job applications. The police officers took Barley to a motel and each paid for one night’s stay. He was scheduled to move into his dorm on Monday. “Fred told us this would be his second semester at Gordon as a biology major and we could tell he was serious about his education,” Maria Gebelein, one of the officers, told the Herald-Gazette. “We helped him because we felt it was the right thing to do.”

Police shared Barley’s story on Facebook, and local residents soon delivered gift cards, food, clothes and new mountain bike. An online donations page exceeded its original goal of $150,000, and Barley found a job at a local restaurant washing dishes. “I was not expecting any of this support and am in awe of how this community has come together to help me,” said Barley, who hopes to major in biology and attend medical school. “I was just trying to go to school, find a job and make it on my own.”

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Treasury Finds Limited Success in Default Collection Pilot

Earlier this month, the Treasury Department announced in a blog post on its site that in a pilot program to collect defaulted federal student loans, it had lower collection levels than private collection companies.

As New America policy analysts Ben Barrett and Alexander Holt write, the pilot program was launched to find out if the agency could collect loan debts without aggressive tactics often used by private contractors -- a source of complaints from borrowers. But the department only managed to resolve 4.4 percent of loans made to 5,729 borrowers, compared to 5.5 percent resolved by a control group of private companies contracted through the department.

Treasury staff members limited contacts with borrowers to one call per week and did not threaten wage garnishment during the first 11 months of the pilot program. The results of the pilot, Barrett and Holt write, indicate that “if we are interested in rehabilitating borrowers, the answer is not to be more gentle.”

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