Examining Whittier

Last week, the Whittier College officials announced that it planned on closing Whittier Law School. Some recent events, such as the school's first-time California bar pass rate of around 22%, and the decision to sell the land the school sits on for $35 million (and lease it back), suggested there was some instability. And while emotions are still raw and much remains uncertain, I thought I'd dig into a few publicly-accessible details to examine what's happened at Whittier in the last decade or so. I'll try to be mostly descriptive. Whether one believes the best decision is to close the school, or to address the school's challenges in a different way, is far beyond the scope of this blog (and beyond the available information we have).

This story starts in 2005, when the American Bar Association ("ABA") placed Whittier on probation. The incoming class in 2005 (which would graduate in 2008) would set the tone for decisions that could improve the school's standing. Indeed, by 2008, things looked much better: the graduating class had a bar passage rate of 83% (in the July 2008 bar, it was 84.3% for first-time test-takers), the incoming class in 2007 had a dip in credentials remedied in 2008, and the school was taken off probation.

I thought I'd evaluate a few of the things that have happened over the years and attempt to visualize them. I'll start with the LSAT quartiles of the classes over the years (excluding the three most recent admissions cycles for now).

LSAT scores, of course, don't tell the whole story; UGPAs coupled with LSAT scores in an index score do a better job, but this is a first rough take. It's also worth noting a few things about these LSAT scores: a 155 is roughly around the 64rd percentile; a 150 is 44th percentile; and a 145 is the 24th percentile. Despite nominally small changes in scores, small changes in these areas can reflect a big change in the student quality. Additionally, a student with an LSAT score of 150 typically averages a 143 on the MBE; the passing score in California is a 144, so we should expect pretty serious degradation in bar passage rates among those with LSAT scores below 150.

Adding a second axis of percentages, I've included the first-time California bar passage rates; the results are from the administrations of the two exams after the class has graduated. (It's worth noting that Whittier has a robust part-time program, so students I identified as a part of the Class of 2008 may well have graduated in 2009. Additionally, some of the data is inconsistent over February administrations in particular across LSAC/ABA reporting forms, so I apologize for some small errors in this portion.) The peaks and valleys roughly correspond with the overall LSAT--but not perfectly. And we would expect the score to decline more rapidly as scores of the incoming classes dip well below 150.

But a couple of major points can change a class's profile from the incoming admission statistics. The first is academic dismissal rates.

(Because of some inconsistencies in how schools report academic dismissal rates, I attributed all academic dismissals in a subsequent year to the previous year's entering class. This should roughly even out across classes. Additionally, the annual data should align, but the ABA/LSAC data is not reported in the most accessible fashion.) It's worth noting that in 2006, the year after Whittier was placed on probation, it academically dismissed a whopping 37% of its first-year class. That undoubtedly had a major impact in improving its bar passage rates in 2008. Only once since then have academic dismissal rates even come close. Expectedly, we see bar passage rates drop as LSAT predictors drop and as academic dismissals remain relatively low.

But why some of the other fluctuation? Why did bar pass rates improve between the Class of 2011 and the Class of 2012, despite a decline in predictors and an essentially identical academic dismissal rate? One more variable to consider: net transfers. Presumably, schools take the very best students in transfer--specifically, from Whittier, the students most likely to pass the bar. High net transfer losses should result in a bigger decline in bar passage rates.

This visualization has almost too much information to be helpful, but consider the loss for the Class of 2011 (in 2009) compared to the loss for the Class of 2012 (in 2010). Whittier had far fewer academic transfers in its Class of 2012; and in the subsequent year, a much better bar passage rate. Higher academic dismissal rates and lower transfer rates should generally yield better bar passage rates. (It also isn't a perfect science; there's some randomness built into bar pass rates that could fluctuate around a few percentage points each year.)

It's worth noting that even as its incoming predictors worsened for the Classes of 2015 and 2016 (both in LSAT scores and confirmed by the bar passage rates), net transfers out actually increased. Many law schools in 2013 and 2014, feeling the crunch of the downturn in applicants, turned to smaller incoming classes to hold their median LSAT for USNWR purposes, then backfilled with transfers. Even though Whittier's incoming classes deteriorated, it became a more popular place to take transfers--further complicating efforts to improve bar passage rates.

Recent incoming class sizes and class LSAT profiles also display this balance of trying to improve class quality without reducing the class size so much that the school was unable to operate at a financially viable level. (I'll add in the three most recent years now; please note the change in Y-axis.)

A decision in the 2007-2008 academic cycle to shrink the incoming class size dramatically yielded its intended benefit: the median LSAT rose 3 points. But it wasn't designed to be a structural change; the incoming class size more than doubled the following year and returned to levels more in line with recent history.

This chart also includes the last three years of incoming classes. The LSAT profile for the Class of 2017 was worse than the Class of 2016 (which had a bar pass rate last July of 22%), with 22% academic dismissal rate and -10% net transfers. For the Class of 2018, however, the class size shrunk dramatically, around 40%, to improve the LSAT of the median and the bottom quartiles. That, like the decision in 2007-2008 for the Class of 2011, comes at a significant financial cost. Last year, the total enrollment at the school was 456, down from 700 in 2011. It was exacerbated by a 23% academic dismissal rate and a -19% net transfer rate.

The incoming class last fall was even smaller still, just 132 students, but the LSAT profile dropped again. These declines were on the heels of not simply significant attrition rates in academic dismissals and transfers (and "others," such as drop-outs), but also a trying job market.

It turns out job placement has been difficult even for a fairly small class size. The figures in the chart above are the 9- and 10-month employment rates in full-time, long-term bar passage required (FTLT BPR) and J.D. advantage (FTLT JDA) positions, along with all "other grad outcomes," and the gray bar on top the matriculating class three years earlier.

To restate how I began this post, the optimal solution for a school in Whittier's position is hardly obvious to me, absent far more data and evidence--in particular, absent far more specific evidence about the overall financial picture. That said, the decline in incoming class size and total enrollment suggests a fairly challenging financial picture.

But I hope a few data points present some of the complicated and longer history of decisionmaking, along with some perspective of what's happened at Whittier in the last few years. For schools facing their own challenges, data points like these, and the far more granular internal data schools have, are useful starting points for this discussion.

Please note any errors or corrections in the data, particularly if I mistakenly assigned outcomes from a particular year to the wrong year from the ABA/LSAC data. Some Y-axes or multiple axes do not start at zero to provide relative values. Multiple Y-axes are aligned primarily to provide ease of reading a chart.

UPDATE: This post has been updated slightly for clarity.