George Washington Law School (where I teach) has been accused of “downright predatory” tactics by the Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs in its acceptance of transfer students from American law school. The tension caused by transfers has increased during a period of reduced applications. Not only are schools fighting over a small applicant pool, but transfer students are effectively “off the books” for the purposes of reported GPA and LSAT rankings used by U.S. News and World Report. Thus, schools are more inclined to accept a transfer student in the second year (when scores are not reported) than when they first applied as first-year students.
Associate Dean Anthony Varona accuses GW of raiding the school to remove its top students. He says that GW enrolled 97 transfer students and more than half came from American University’s Washington College of Law. That represents what Varona calls a “backdoor transfer trick” to increase class size while hiding scores.
Varona certainly has cause to object, though GW is certainly not unique in the increased transfer rate. Georgetown accepted 113 transfer students in 2014 compared to 97 for George Washington. However, the large number of transfers at American clearly represents a disruption for the school. One can understand how such transfers make competing schools feel like farm teams for higher ranked schools. It is also coming at a time of dire economic pressures from some schools, though American is a very strong institution with a top faculty and long history of successful graduates.
I have long been a critic of second-year transfer rates, but not because of the allegation of poaching. It is true that there was a time when the acceptance of top students from a competing law school was viewed as undignified and uncivil. When I went to law school, transfers were only allowed upon a showing of true hardship such as a forced move to another city. This denied successful students from seeking programs that they viewed as more challenging and elevating for them. I have seen many transfer students who had mediocre application scores excel in their first years and become true stars at GW and other schools. They deserve that opportunity.
I do, however, have misgivings over the large numbers of transfer students that we are seeing each year. at various schools. The greatest argument for limiting transfers is not the poaching allegations but the institutional desire to fully train students within a school’s curriculum and culture. With only three years to train a law student, transfer students miss a critical first year of education and enculturation. Indeed, the different emphasis of a school — particularly top schools — is most evident in the first year. Top schools tend to carefully integrate theory and doctrine in the first year while other schools often tend to be strictly doctrinal. Accordingly, I view large numbers of transfer students in the second year as disruptive and dysfunctional not just for the school losing these students but for the school accepting them. In my view, transfer students should be kept to a minimum in the second year to preserve the integrity of the academic program and mission of the school.
Having said that, I do not agree with the poaching criticism. Law schools have become more of a free market in terms of both academic and student talent. There is much greater fluidity in both professors and students moving between law schools. While I would reduce transfer numbers, I have no qualms about allowing gifted students to transfer in the second year. I do not view such transfers as an affront to other schools. GW also loses transfers to some higher ranked schools. These students have every right to seek what they view as a better program after effectively proving themselves in their first year. However, I agree with Dean Varona that these transfers are often used to augment classes despite lower scores and less than remarkable records. If these scores were reported and counted in rankings, I expect the number of transfer acceptances would decline significantly.
Accordingly, I tend to view the high rate of transfers as unhealthy for both schools, but the problem is not poaching but padding. Schools are importing students for tuition revenue when their scores and standing cannot be counted. That undermines the quality of both schools. I am entirely supportive however of allowing top students to transfer to what they view as better schools. The old informal rule had a touch of a cartel quality in locking students into their law schools. In the end, Varona and I likely would end up in the same place for different reasons. For the moment, however, the market is driving this shift in practices. We are likely left with a Coasean reality that the market rather than entitlements will drive these outcomes.
Until then, admissions deans will likely continue to set off as did the Lincolnshire poachers below to snare a student or two for next year’s class.
Source: ABA Journal