Senator joins debate over law schools' graduate employment data

Sen. Charles Grassley, scourge of pharmaceutical companies, defense contractors, the Pentagon and others, has joined the fray over graduate employment data reported by law schools.

In two sharply worded letters to the American Bar Association, Grassley asks the ABA to explain its standards for evaluating law school employment data and student-loan default rates.

The Iowa Republican said his interest was sparked when an advisory panel of the U.S. Department of Education this year raised questions about whether the ABA had done enough to ensure that employment data were reliable.

"The number of students attending law school and the amount that they borrow is increasing, while their ability to secure jobs and pay back loans is decreasing as jobs disappear," Grassley said. "The result is that millions of federal guaranteed taxpayer dollars are being borrowed at the great risk that many students may not be able to repay the loans."

The issue has been percolating for some time, and took on intensity with the collapse of employment in the legal market in 2008 and 2009. Hiring has since picked up at law firms, although not to the degree of before the start of the recession.

As Grassley's letter indicated, many law students rely on graduate employment data not only for selecting the profession, but also for choosing law schools. When Villanova University School of Law disclosed in February that admissions data of incoming students, used to compile national rankings, had been inflated for a time before 2010, it triggered a new round of speculation about the reliability of not only admissions data but also of law school reporting on the success rate of graduates in finding jobs.

In his letters, Grassley focuses on student-loan default rates and their impact on taxpayers, who finance the loans. He suggests that default rates increasingly are tied to the flagging legal job market, and presses the ABA to explain how it incorporates employment data into its evaluation of law schools.

Such concerns are not merely the province of politicians or abstract academic inquiries. Students and alumni, spurred perhaps by the grim job market, have been agitating for more reliable employment and admissions data.

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