"Access" to upward mobility: A case study

"Access" to upward mobility: A case study

"Access" to upward mobility: A case study

In June 2016, the New York Times published an exposé on Valparaiso University School of Law and their process for recruiting new students. The piece provoked a polemic on the subject of the place of markets and government intervention in education because it revealed that the problematic practices employed by the school were simply standard for a certain level of institution. It was a very divisive piece as, naturally, those who came from the targeted tier were defensive and resentful in their response to it.

Bluntly put, Valparaiso and others of its kind are not particularly good institutions. Since the New York Times piece, the law school has frozen enrollment and is in the process of closing, meaning that it is no longer ranked on the US News and World Report’s league tables for law schools. However, the university itself did not make the cut onto either the US News and World Report’s 2019 table for nationally competitive institutions or Times Higher Education’s table for internationally important universities. Filtering back through the lists since the early 20-teens, one sees that the institution has only ever been listed on the regional tables for US News and World Report - this is not an achievement since the publication methodically catalogues every post-secondary institution in the country according to region and assigns a ranking in comparison to other institutions of the same type in that area - and has never appeared on THE’s list. In other words, the data marking the school’s inadequacy has been freely and publicly available for decades.

The question as proposed by the writers of the exposé was one of institutional responsibility to disclose information to applicants:

“People are not being helped by going to these schools,” Kyle McEntee [interviewed by the NYT], executive director of the advocacy group Law School Transparency, said of Valparaiso and other low-tier law schools. “The debt is really high, bar passage rates are horrendous, employment is horrendous.” 

While in a utopian society, institutions such as Valparaiso would volunteer the information about their “horrendous” track record, it is undesirable for such a change to occur in reality, primarily because it would assist in de-incentivizing the individual responsibility represented by personally checking institutional league tables and collecting relevant information before making a crucial decision. There is also the issue that many of the student body at lower-level schools are attending for understandable, but not particularly appropriate, reasons. The NYT explained how this aspect is fueling anger: 

Such is the atavistic rage among those who went to law school seeking the upper-middle-class status and security often enjoyed by earlier generations, only to find themselves on a financial treadmill and convinced their schools misled them, that there is now a whole genre of online writing devoted specifically to channeling it: “scamblogging.”

It is no wonder that those fitting this description responded with anger when the New York Times published the piece: It is one thing to complain about a situation on a fairly private blog, but another for the nation’s leading newspaper to reveal the shame to the world.

One of the more disturbing elements in the exposé was the rationale behind the intense focus on recruitment from an uncompetitive demographic. At its core, the structure was a pyramid scheme. A large base of mediocre to failing students supported a handful - to put into perspective a “handful,” the NYT revealed that at the time of writing only three graduates out of a class of 131 had obtained employment at firms of traditional size and stature - of good students who received full scholarships but also had a tendency to transfer to more reputable law schools before graduation.

[….] the way Valparaiso and other lower-ranked schools lure students like Mr. Hahn [an outstanding student] is to offer sizable scholarships, and the only way they can afford these scholarships is if a large proportion of other students pay full freight.

Inevitably, many of these sticker-price payers are weak students who lack better options. Research by Prof. Jerome M. Organ, an expert on law school economics at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, shows that students with low test scores and undergraduate grade-point averages tend to subsidize the stars; this is especially true of third- and fourth-tier schools like Valparaiso. It’s the marginal students who pay the bills, not students like Mr. Hahn.

Sadly, the bulk of this base was, and continues to be, drawn from people from disadvantaged backgrounds, often single parents, individuals coming from less than rigorous high schools and undergraduate institutions, or other difficult life circumstances which would set them at a deficit in terms of both completing the course satisfactorily and then, since they frequently struggled to pass the bar exam, being in a position to meet their financial obligations. The New York Times found that many of the Valparaiso graduates worked in jobs which didn't require any academic qualification, such as barista. In other words, for the “marginal students” an advanced education was and is more likely to be a liability than an investment since it leaves them saddled with debt and without any real prospects for working in their chosen field.

In response, outraged alumni rushed to the defense, arguing that the exposé discounted the university’s overall “commitment to social justice,” under whose auspices the majority at the base of the pyramid received admittance. The practices of Valparaiso and its kind are not exploitative in the social justice argument, rather they are democratizing, opening the professions to people who, supposedly, would otherwise be without access to such career paths. In taking such an argument, however, the irony of the situation escapes its defenders. These social warriors fail to see a contradiction in promoting a system in which ordinary judgement is suspended for social engineering purposes all in the name of "fixing" another system which, they claim, is exclusionary and unfair. Given what the exposé revealed, one must wonder to what extent those at the bottom of the pyramid have truly benefited.











Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
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