Law School Grade Inflation Causes Controversy

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    In an article published on June 21, 2010 in the New York Times, NYT writer Catherine Rampell takes on the subject of grade inflation in law schools, citing the particular case of Loyola Law School Los Angeles. "One day next month," she writes, "every student at Loyola Law School Los Angeles will awake to a higher grade point average. But it’s not because they are all working harder. The school is retroactively inflating its grades, tacking on 0.333 to every grade recorded in the last few years." The goal of this retroactive grade inflation, she continues, "is to make its students look more attractive in a competitive job market."

    The results of this academic experiment, as it turns out, may be more bad than good.

    Let's break it down. Loyola Los Angeles is adding 0.333 to every grade. They are doing this because their grading curve is one of the hardest out of the law schools in California, with a mean of 2.667. This mean, Rampell was told, which was lower than the 3.0 at many other California schools, made Loyola grads' job search more difficult.

    “[The lower GPA mean] put our students at an unfair disadvantage, especially if you factor in the current economic environment,” says Samuel Liu, 26, president of the [Loyola Law]’s Student Bar Association and the leader of the grading change efforts. He also says many Loyola students are ineligible for coveted clerkships that have strict G.P.A. cutoffs.

    Loyola is not alone. According to the NYT article, many other schools have also practiced grade inflation over the last few years -- some even before the legal job market took a turn south. Law schools at NYU, Georgetown, Golden Gate University, Tulane University, UCLA, USC (California), and UC Hastings have all made grading systems more lenient; Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and UC Berkeley Law Schools have eliminated grades altogether in favor of a "pass/fail" system. University of Chicago Law School gives students grades, but unconventional ones; the school grades students on a scale from 155 to 186, and provides the following key to interpreting students' transcripts (source):

    The Law School uses the following numeric grades and their equivalents: 186-180=A, 179-174=B, 173-168=C, 167-160=D, 159-155=F. The median grade at the Law School is 177.

    The Frequency of Honors in a typical graduating class:

    Highest Honors (182+) - 0.4%
    High Honors (180.5+)(pre-2002 180+) - 3.8%
    Honors (179+)(pre-2002 178+) - 19.0%

    The stated purpose of this grade inflation (and perhaps even the unconventional grading rubrics), is to give graduates of these law schools a more competitive edge when applying for both summer internships and post-graduate jobs. The thought is that, with these inflated grades, students and recent graduates from these schools will no longer be at a disadvantage to students and graduates from schools with "nicer" grading curves. Students will then be in competition to get the jobs that will help them pay for their law school loans (often totaling upwards of $150,000), and thus will be able to avoid the feeling that they are "drowning in debt."

    But is that really the case?

    These grading inflations are not secret. Loyola Law's grade inflation is certainly not a secret, given its appearance in the NYT. Georgetown Law published its grade increase on the Student Bar Association's website, and USC, as well as UC Hastings, did not attempt to hide it, either. Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and UC Berkeley Law Schools have certainly not hidden their "pass/fail" grading systems, and UChicago (as noted in the quote above) provides a handy decryption for their grading policy. So the question one must ask is: When everyone knows that the grade you got isn't really the grade at all, does its being higher help your case at all?

    The answer would seem to be no. One recruiting director told the NYT what probably many others would:

    “Every year we do our homework,” says Helen Long, the legal recruiting director at Ropes & Gray, a firm with more than 1,000 lawyers. “And besides, if a school had a remarkable jump in its G.P.A.’s from one year to the next, we receive a big enough group of résumés every year that we’d probably notice.”

    And when in doubt, say other employers, there are other ways to find out the mechanics behind a law school student's résumé:

    Employers say they also press law schools for rankings, or some indication of G.P.A.’s for the top echelon of the class. And if the school will not release that information — many do not — other accolades like honors and law journal participation provide clues to a student’s relative rank.

    Even reading the comments on the article, one can see that this grade increase may not have its intended effect: "If I was an employer who reads the news and cared about GPA," says one commenter, "I would subtract 0.3333 [sic] from Loyola Law students as of the date this policy is retroactive to." Another commenter quips: "As a partner in a law firm, I will ask recent grads for a copy of a transcript (even if partial) that is more than one year old (2009 or earlier). That should make for an interesting interview."

    The Massachusetts School of Law twitter account chimed in as well (and with a good point): "If grades must be inflated to make a law degree seem worth the cost, perhaps the culprit is tuition, not [the] job market."

    And then there's the point made by alums of many of these schools. Again, in reading the comments, there are many that feel that this grade inflation not only cheapens the grades they themselves got, but also invalidates their efforts to get them, and their own hardships in job searches:

    I graduated Loyola Law School in 1999. I worked my tail off for the grades I got, including Dean's list. This move cheapens my efforts. Message to the Alumni Association: Don't bother calling me.
    So, getting good grades in law school is hard, and these schools somehow think that's a problem? Does everyone who ever graduated in the past get a new transcript with their GPA retroactively raised?
    I went to law school....no one raised my grades. I made law review on my own.

    WHAT DO YOU THINK? Is this grade inflation going to make job searches easier for law school grads? Will it have its intended effect of "leveling the playing field?" Will it make graduates from these schools more competitive? Or will it have the complete opposite result, making graduates from these schools appear "soft," and making hiring partners look at their résumés and transcripts in askance?

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