Whittier's challenges may have been unique to California

On the heels of my analysis of the challenges facing Whittier, I starting thinking about how Whittier compared with a great many other law schools in the country that are facing the same challenges--a shrinking law school applicant pool, declining quality of applicants, continued challenges in bar exam pass rates and graduate employment statistics. Whittier's incoming class profile isn't unique. What makes its situation different from other schools?

The answer, I think, lies in California, along three dimensions--state bar cut scores, transfers, and employment.

I recently read a law professor suggest that Whittier was making a significant mistake closing because it was located in Orange County, California, a place that would experience great demand for legal services in the near future. I tend to find just the opposite--if Whittier were dropped into just about any of the other 49 states in the country, it likely would not be facing the same pressures it faces in its current location. (This is, of course, not to say that it wouldn't be facing the same kinds of pressures in legal education generally, but that its problems are exacerbated in California.)

I looked at the incoming class profiles from 2013 and picked 11 other schools that closely matched Whittier's overall incoming LSAT profile.

School Name Matriculants 75th LSAT 50th LSAT 25th LSAT
Atlanta's John Marshall Law School 235 152 149 146
John Marshall Law School 404 152 149 146
Mississippi College 159 153 149 145
New England Law | Boston 238 153 149 145
Nova Southeastern University 305 152 149 146
Oklahoma City University 162 153 149 145
Suffolk University 450 153 149 145
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth 78 151 148 145
University of North Dakota 83 153 148 145
Western New England University 120 152 149 145
Whittier Law School 221 152 149 145
Widener-Commonwealth 74 151 148 145

First, I looked at the first-time bar pass rate for the July 2016 bar, with each state's cut score and the state's overall first-time pass rate among graduates of ABA-accredited schools. (As of this writing, neither the Mississippi state bar nor Mississippi College have disclosed school-specific bar pass rates yet.)

School Name State Cut score July 2016 Pass Rate Statewide Pass Rate
Mississippi College MS 132 * 75%
Widener-Commonwealth PA 136 79% 75%
Western New England University MA 135 74% 81%
New England Law | Boston MA 135 73% 81%
University of North Dakota ND 130 73% 73%
Suffolk University MA 135 70% 81%
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth MA 135 69% 81%
Oklahoma City University OK 132 67% 75%
John Marshall Law School IL 133 65% 77%
Nova Southeastern University FL 136 63% 68%
Atlanta's John Marshall Law School GA 135 43% 73%
Whittier Law School CA 144 22% 62%

A Pepperdine colleague blogged last year that if Whittier were in New York, it would likely have had a 51% first-time pass rate instead of a 22% pass rate. New York's cut score is relatively low--a 133.  (Whittier's average combined California bar score for first-time test-takers in July 2016 was a 135.5, above 133 and well below California's 144.) If Whittier were in Massachusetts or Georgia, it might have had something near 51%. If it were in Mississippi or North Dakota, its pass rate may have approached 60%. A first-time pass rate of 3 in 5 is still not something to be happy about, but it's a far cry from a first-time rate around just 1 in 5.

It isn't that some of these schools figured out how to help their students to pass the bar and that Whittier lagged; it's that California's high cut score makes it more difficult to pass the bar than if Whittier grads had taken the bar in almost any other state. (This isn't to say that a higher or a lower cut score is better or worse; it's simply to describe the situation that California schools face compared to others.)

Second, a factor in bar pass rate includes the loss of high-performing students as transfers elsewhere. I looked at transfer rates among these schools in 2014, a loss of students who matriculated to the school in 2013.

School Name Transfers Out Pct Transfers Out
Atlanta's John Marshall Law School 19% 45
Nova Southeastern University 13% 41
Whittier Law School 13% 28
John Marshall Law School 12% 50
New England Law | Boston 11% 26
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth 10% 8
Western New England University 8% 10
Suffolk University 8% 37
University of North Dakota 5% 4
Oklahoma City University 3% 5
Widener-Commonwealth 3% 2
Mississippi College 3% 4

It may come as little surprise that larger states with many competitive schools that shrunk the incoming class sizes to preserve their LSAT and UGPA medians tended to rely on transfers to help backfill their classes. Atlanta's John Marshall lost 20 students to Emory, 10 to Georgia State, and 5 to Mercer; Nova lost 16 to Miami and 5 to Florida State; and Whittier lost 15 to Loyola-Los Angeles. These schools lost a number of their best students, and, unsurprisingly, had some of the worst bar outcomes among this cohort. (Four of these schools are in Massachusetts, and perhaps no single school attracts the bulk of transfer attention; and schools in less competitive states like Mississippi, North Dakota, and Oklahoma experienced insignificant attrition.)

Third, Whittier had low job placement in full-time, long-term, bar passage-required and J.D.-advantage positions, but it's a reflection of the fact that the placement rate of California schools lags most of the rest of the country. (It's also exacerbated by the low bar pass rate.) Consider each school's placement in FTLT BPR & JDA positions, and the statewide placement rate into such (unfunded) jobs.

School Name FTLT BPR+JDA Statewide emp Delta
Mississippi College 76% 72% 4
Oklahoma City University 73% 77% -4
Widener-Commonwealth 68% 83% -15
Suffolk University 66% 79% -13
John Marshall Law School 66% 77% -11
New England Law | Boston 60% 79% -19
Atlanta's John Marshall Law School 58% 77% -19
Nova Southeastern University 58% 65% -7
Western New England University 57% 79% -22
University of North Dakota 57% 57% 0
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth 55% 79% -24
Whittier Law School 39% 64% -25

Whittier lags in placement here, too, but in part because California has unusually low placement. (North Dakota, a state with just one flagship law school, serves as an outlier.) This is not a total defense of a particular school's outcomes, either--Florida also appears to have a relatively high number of law school graduates, and its employment rate shows similar challenges. But coupled with Whittier's low bar passage rate, one can see why securing students in positions, particularly "bar passage required" positions, would be even more difficult. Several other schools show employment rates that are 19 to 24 points behind the state average. (School like Oklahoma City, one of three; Mississippi College, one of two; and North Dakota, the only school in the state, may distort these comparisons somewhat.)

I then read another piece from a graduate from the 1970s lamenting that Whittier had "lost its way" in training graduates ready to take the bar. I pointed out Whittier's challenges were hardly recent, as the ABA had placed Whittier on probation in 2005, which lead to efforts that bolstered Whittier's first-time bar pass rate in California past 84%.

But it's worth looking back to the 1970s, when Whittier first sought accreditation, to consider its situation and aspirations. Here's an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times in 1978 when Whittier received ABA accreditation:

In 1978, a 550 was around the 51st percentile of LSAT scores--something like a 151 today. Its tuition in 1974 was $1200 per year, or around $6000 per year in 2017 dollars. It was on pace to increase to $2900 per year in just four years, or about $11,000 in 2017 dollars. There are obviously significant benefits that arise from becoming an ABA-accredited law school. But there are also costs with accreditation--and I'm not sure that a law school with tuition levels at $11,000 a year would be facing the same kinds of pressures among selecting prospective students.

I don't pretend to understand the dynamics of legal education in California in the last 40 years, with more than 20 ABA-accredited law schools and a number of California accredited and unaccredited schools. But I do think some context about the California market suggests that some of the problems Whittier faced were exacerbated by the California market in particular.