What Do 1L Attrition Statistics Actually Tell You?

TaxProf Blog points us to a genuinely interesting and — to me — new statistic about law schools, 1L Attrition.

Now I'm trying to figure out what it means. Some things are clear:

  • A very low attrition rate is probably good — it means that students are happy, don't drop out or transfer, and aren't flunked out. You're likely to be happy there. (Unclear, though, what it means about legal education if no one ever flunks out; no admissions process is that perfect. Except maybe Yale's.) Unless of course it means everyone wants to transfer but no one will take them…
  • A very high attrition rate is a red flag of a sort. Either students are dropping out in droves, flunking out en masse, or getting the heck out of Dodge. But for some students it may not be all bad: a high flunkout rate, for example, may mean the school takes chances on marginal students and then gives them an honest signal about their prospects after the first year, rather than stringing them along (and collecting tuition) for three years. It could be a brutal first year, but it might be worth finding out what the place is like if you survive boot camp.
  • What about the middle? Here, I think the headline number is almost misleading. I'd want to know why students are leaving. There's a big difference between a school in which people leave because they can't stand it (drop outs); leave because they can't hack it (flunk outs); and leave because they transfer to somewhere better (feeders). A number of schools with high US News scores massage their data by not accepting low-LSAT candidates as 1Ls. They make up for the small resulting first year class (and lost tuition) by using the '2L transfer strategy' — accepting a large number of transfers in as 2Ls. This also helps their bar pass rate, since the transfers in are people with good grades, which makes them good risks for the bar (and unless those students are replaced by transfers in, it also likely depresses the bar pass rate for the sending school below what the class they admit would have achieved, further enhancing the competitive position of the accepting school). From the point of view of some motivated students, a school that sends many transfers may actually be better than one whose 1L products are seen as unattractive for some reason by the schools using the 2L transfer strategy. Thus a high transfer number may be a sign that students are fleeing — or it may be a sign that admission to the school plus good grades sends a signal that higher-ranked schools are happy to accept.
  • If I were trying to make sense of this number, I'd not only want to know why people left (especially flunking vs. transfers), and where they left to, but also how many transfers IN the school had. Although there too, the number would need to be treated with care. A school that loses large numbers to transfers out and gains few is a place people want not to be (or a great feeder school). A place that is more or less in balance seems to make the transfers figure something of a non-issue. A place that is a huge net gainer is probably a place people want to be — but it's also a place that likely is gaming its US News stats, which a student might think reflects poorly on its general ethical climate, or at least suggests the number has even less meaning than usual.

[Lest this seem defensive in any way, I should point out that U. Miami's statistics here put it at #78 (higher is better) in a large pack of many law schools bunched together with trivial statistical differences between them.]

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3 Responses to What Do 1L Attrition Statistics Actually Tell You?

  1. matt says:

    Some of those numbers seem hard to believe, too. _No one_ left Pittsburgh, New Mexico, Arizona, or Ohio State? Not a single person? It seems very hard to believe that not one person decided that law school wasn’t for them, transfered to a higher ranked school, got sick and left, or flunked out.

  2. Joe says:

    I looked at the numbers for all law schools across the country. I think that those numbers have been cooked. For my law school, in the midwest, the numbers match my memories of 30 years ago. For several of the nearby law schools, within 500 miles, the numbers appear to be false. I think attrition is higher at those schools. I can’t make a definitive statement until I see the raw data.

  3. Andrew says:

    I’ll link the same thing I always do when stats are discussed:

    http://www.abanet.org/legaled/statistics/stats.html

    There are Excel spreadsheets on that page that give you all the statistics you could ever want about law schools. Including transfers in and transfers out and attrition rates.

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