Now I still believe this is extremely unlikely -- another key figure in the reform movement let me know he agrees that it's almost inconceivable Solomon didn't realize the numbers were wrong when he commented on the US News and National Law Journal stories praising Rutgers-Camden for being a great value proposition -- but on reflection I have to admit it's not impossible that Solomon is telling the truth. I even have to admit that it's possible he wasn't lying in his email to Rutgers students earlier this week, when he said US News didn't publish graduate debt numbers until this year, even though he commented in the media on US News's analysis of those numbers last year.
In other words, the mistake I may be making is to assume that while somebody who has been dean of a law school for 14 years may have become something of a sociopath, he surely isn't an utterly incompetent clown. But again on reflection, this may be wrong. Maybe Solomon is just a complete joke of a person. What else would you call somebody who has been running a law school for more than a decade and yet has literally no idea whatsoever what it costs the school's students to attend the school?
That, after all, is Dean Solomon's only defense. I suppose even something as preposterous as the blatant contradictions between the assertions in his email and his comments to the media last year can be explained in these terms: He's a "busy man," who just signs off on things like university press releases and law school ABA disclosure statements put together by others, without really reading them, or knowing or caring what they say.
This is possible. But at some point, professional incompetence reaches a point where it's not only functionally but also morally indistinguishable from conscious dishonesty. Again, Solomon's defense is that he's the kind of person who, after being informed that the school he runs has been reporting wildly inaccurate numbers to the ABA for at least the last four years, writes an explanatory e-mail to hundreds of people that still gets the basic facts of the situation completely wrong (Or maybe a staffer wrote it. For Solomon is a busy man).
In other words, in legal academia we're constantly dealing with things that preclude assuming both good faith and minimal professional competence on the part of the relevant actors. If you assume good faith, you have to also assume utter incompetence, while if you assume the person actually knows what he's doing, you have to conclude he's on the grift. People like Solomon -- and there are apparently quite a few in this business -- might be both crooks and clowns, but at a minimum they have to be one or the other.
Speaking of which, let's take a quick look at what's going on at the Phoenix School of Law. Phoenix (not affiliated with the University of Phoenix by the way) is a for-profit outfit run by the Job Creators at the private equity firm Sterling Partners, who also own Charlotte and Florida Coastal. The school's website claims that it "places 97% of its graduates into jobs within nine months of graduation."
That sounds pretty good, but how much is it going to cost? This page on the website reports that "the median cumulative program debt for PhoenixLaw graduates between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011" included $153,489.50 in federal student loan debt, and $35,000 in private student loan debt. This means the median (not the mean) loan debt for Phoenix graduates for the class of 2011 was $188,489.50. This astonishing figure is 30% higher than the figure reported by the school to US News in the fall of 2011. I called up Phoenix's director of financial aid, who assured me the figure on the school's web site was correct, and that she would look into how a much lower figure ended up getting reported to US News.
Note that the language on the website is phrased carefully to describe a median, rather than a mean (the mean would of course be higher, especially since Phoenix seems to be counting graduates with no law school debt in its calculation). Edit: as a commenter points out, if Phoenix is in fact counting graduates with no debt in this calculation, the median figure for all graduates is likely higher than the mean figure for all graduates. However the US News figures are supposed to exclude people with no debt so it's unclear whether the median in that context is higher than the mean, assuming again that all schools are reporting means rather than medians, which remains unclear. I've been working under the assumption that the graduate debt numbers reported to the ABA and US News are means, but it turns out this may be in many cases incorrect. Here's the language from the ABA questionnaire to which schools are required to respond, and whose language US News copies when it asks schools for the same data:
17. Average amount borrowed in law school:
a). The average amount borrowed in law school by 2010-2011 J.D. graduates who borrowed at least
one education loan in law school: $_____
b) Number of 2010-2011 J.D. graduates who borrowed at least one educational loan in law school:
"Average" is -- or at least a lawyer could argue is -- an ambiguous term, and could be interpreted to signify a median rather than a mean average. It would be interesting to learn how many schools are interpreting question #17 to mean the former rather than the latter.
All of which is to say that we have an increasing amount of evidence that the graduate debt figures reported to the ABA and US News are far from reliable, and that the real numbers may well be a lot higher than reported. And it's increasingly clear that this entire business is in desperate need of some sort of independent auditing process, which would have been put in place long ago if either the ABA or the DOE had any real interest in getting reliable data, as opposed to the garbage they're getting fed now.
Consider what it means that Phoenix law grads are graduating with a median debt of nearly $190,000. The good folks at Sterling Partners, bowing I suppose to the harsh reality that employment outcomes for Phoenix grads can now be looked up on the ABA website, also supply a version of those numbers on the school's website, although one has to dig around a bit to find them, unlike the prominently featured claim that the school "places 97% of its graduates into jobs within nine months of graduation."
Those stats reveal that only 49 of 131 2011 graduates purportedly got full time jobs requiring bar admission. Furthermore, almost all these jobs were with very small law firms of ten lawyers or less, or as solo practitioners. (The 97% stat -- 94% for the class of 2011 -- is bolstered by the school hiring 16% of its graduates into short-term part-time "jobs."). Phoenix publishes no graduate salary data, but it's safe to say that not a single graduate of the 2011 class got a job that pays a salary that comes within a country mile of allowing that graduate to pay anything close to the median debt load incurred by members of the class.
In other words practically the whole class is going to go into IBR, and will end up staying there as long as the program exists. And what percentage of these people do you suppose will be practicing law five years from now, let alone 15 or 20?
And Phoenix, which was founded in 2005, is very much getting while the getting for Sterling Partners is good: although the 2011 class had 131 members, the school had a total of 969 JD students last year, including 450 1Ls. These people are projected to graduate, assuming costs don't go up, with a total of $183 million in student debt.
Is it OK to call this a scam?