Is it better for one student to get a job than n students to fail the bar?
A student’s final law school GPA predicts bar passage better than other independent variables. But the relationship isn’t causal: raising the mean GPA of all students does not promote bar passage. Indeed, some investigators have suggested that the inverse is more likely to be true. When GPA rises for all students, individuals at the bottom of the class aren’t sufficiently signaled that their grades are really and truly bad, and consequently such badly-warned students don’t approach bar study with the requisite degree of seriousness. That is, if a school has a mean of a 3.3 at graduation, the bottom 20% of the class probably has GPA of around a B-. B- students may well say to themselves “sure, I’m at the bottom of the class, but I’m not a C student! I’m not in danger of failing the bar!” But they are. In this perverse way, raising the mean increases the rate at which weaker students fail the bar, even as overall, grades are positively correlated with passing!
The puzzle deepens. Students often argue that employers focus on mean GPA to the exclusion of class rank. Given that students are competing with other schools (nationally and regionally), there are race-to-the-bottom pressures on each law school’s curve generated by employment markets. A school that produces students at the 50th percentile with a 3.5 mean will obtain better employment outcomes than one that produces students at the 50th percentile with a 3.0 mean. All else equal, schools should reduce barriers to employment. (Of course this result depends on employers indeed acting in the irrational manner described – ignoring or downplaying class rank and focusing on absolute GPA. This would be very, very difficult to test empirically, though I imagine someone could give it a shot using nifty studies.)
You see the tension, right? A higher mean simultaneously could boost employment in the middle and higher end of the class while also depressing bar passage at the lower end of the class. These contrasting outcome effects turn on psychological biases resulting from overemphasizing raw grades over percentile rank, but simply providing class rank instead of grades would cause employers to balk. The tension may lead administrators and faculty to an uncomfortable question: when the two conflict, should we privilege bar passage over employment? What is the appropriate calculus? Could we live with one additional student failing the bar if two got a job?
My own view is that the price for bar failure is so high that the number of jobs won in this calculus would have to be unrealistically high. Consequently lower means are to be preferred to higher ones at some schools. What do you think?