The paper is The Tragedy of the Student Commons: Law Student Transfers and Legal Education, by Jeff Rensberger.
Here's the summary from a blog post by Brian Tamanaha:Transfer Students are the New Normal (With Significant Implications for Law Schools)
"Transfer students are sweeping across law schools, with about 5 percent of students moving annually. In 2008, the most recent year with publicly available records, every accredited law school in America but one saw transfers; at almost every law school, the transfer door swung in both directions: outgoing students departed for a better school, just as incoming students came in. It is an annual reshuffle of students up the law school chain.
"Remarkably—a sign of how crazy things have gotten—even students at top fifteen schools transfer up to find a better perch in the law school hierarchy. In the four years on record (2005-2008), as many as 10 students have transferred up in a given year from Michigan, Duke, and Northwestern, and a greater number have left Cornell and Georgetown.
"Law professors treat transfers as if a taboo. A recent article about transfers in the Journal of Legal Education supplies numbers, but redacts the identities of the law schools (declining to "name names").
"Transfer students are the new normal. When nearly every law school (that can) takes in transfers, and many do so in significant numbers, it is silly to treat it as a deviant or dirty practice. The scale of this phenomenon--the names and numbers--may surprise you.
"This phenomenon starts at the top. Law schools try to strike the best balance between improving or maintaining their median LSAT and harvesting revenue. As LSAT-free revenue payers, transfer students are ideal: they are capable students who bring in money with no downside beyond a bit of institutional inconvenience.
"Among elite law schools, the undisputed champions of cashing in on transfers are Georgetown (net student gain of 87, 87, 81, and 71 in 2005-2008) and Columbia (39, 54, 62, and 72 in same years). But the other industry blue bloods are not shy about it either. Almost all of the elite schools brought in transfers each year in significant numbers: one to two dozen at Yale, Stanford, Penn, and Chicago (adding 8 to 13 percent to their classes); two to three dozen at Harvard, Michigan, Berkeley; three to four dozen at NYU and Northwestern. (Gaining a leg up in the transfer grab, Northwestern sent “conditional admittance” letters to a bunch of students denied initial admission, informing them that they will be admitted as transfers if they meet a specified class rank in their first year elsewhere. ) Virginia went up and down. Only Duke, Cornell, and Texas consistently netted around 10 or fewer students (the net gain of the first two was depressed by the significant number of students they lost).
"Once schools at the top absorb transfers in real numbers, the process inevitably cascades. Schools drained of students by higher-ups, in turn take transfers from schools lower in the chain, and so on down. That’s why virtually every school in the country sees transfers in or out, and in most cases in both directions.
"An illuminating picture can be seen in the latest published statistics (keep in mind that this is just one year, 2008, and things are fluid). When measured in terms of the percentage of the second year class—which tells you the proportion of new bodies in the group that graduates—Rutgers-Camden is number one at nearly 23 percent of the class, and Columbia is second at 21 percent. One out of five Columbia law school graduates in 2010 did their first year elsewhere.
"No law school (outside of HYS) entirely controls its own fate. Every school is subject to the consequences of decisions made by higher ups as well as decisions by competitor schools in the same rank group. The 2008 numbers cited above likely understates current numbers of transfers taken by top schools.
"And then there are the net losers (literally not pejoratively).
"Two law schools, Cooley and Florida Coastal, incorporate transfers-out as an element of their economic model. These schools feed on students with rock bottom LSAT scores who have little chance of obtaining initial entry elsewhere. Many students come hoping to do well enough to transfer to a better school after the first year. For this to work financially, these schools must take in a large number of students, anticipating massive attrition at the end of the first year (transfers out, quitting, failing out). Unlike most law schools, which count on three years of tuition, these institutions will settle for one. In 2008, Cooley law school lost 188 transfers out, but it had 1,903 entering students. Florida Coastal lost 78 transfers out from a total class of 573. (Ramping up in size, in 2010 they took in 808 JD students.) These schools will be okay financially because they are built to operate that way.
"Other schools that lose transfers in large numbers may be in trouble. Ave Maria saw 27 students leave a class of 127. Whittier lost 28 students from a class of 156 (4 transferred in). Ave Maria, Whittier, Thomas Jefferson, Detroit Mercy, Phoenix, and Widener (Wilmington) all suffered net losses of more than 10 percent of their class. Syracuse and Florida A & M were nearly 10 percent down. Valparaiso and St. Thomas (Minnesota) were down 8.5 percent. New England lost 8 percent, and Catholic was close to that. Hofstra, Oklahoma City, and Dayton suffered net losses of more than 7 percent.
"Departures of this size are financial blows, not to mention the exodus of many of their best students. Each student who leaves is two years of tuition (discounted for scholarships) up in smoke. Few businesses could sustain revenue losses on this order without undergoing changes in how they operate. But there isn’t much that law schools in this position can do. They can up scholarship offers to dissuade students from heading out, but that would take away scholarship money needed for the next entering class, and many students will depart for greener pastures anyway. Alternatively, these schools can take in more transfers themselves, assuming they have drawing power.
HT: Mary O'Keeffe