Suspicious diversity at law schools

By Aaron N. Taylor
 
The admission process at many of the country’s most selective law schools has become little more than a search for the lowest-hanging fruit — those students who probably have the least use for law school. Too much attention is paid to rankings, prestige and the preservation of advantages; too little is paid to the needs of the legal profession and the public good mission of higher education. And when schools are successful at enrolling student bodies that reflect society, they are viewed with suspicion, as if diversity is an appalling notion and our narrow conceptions of merit sacrosanct.  
 
Legal education is in the midst of a drastic and unyielding decline in student interest. Since 2010, enrollments have fallen almost 28 percent — the equivalent of 55 average-sized law schools that year. There has been a death watch of sorts trained on some of the less prominent — or in elitist parlance, less prestigious — schools. Many are wondering how these schools have, so far, managed to survive in such an unfavorable climate.
 
One of the most common theories is that these schools are filling their seats with students who have little chance of success — or put simply, they are exploiting unqualified students for tuition revenue. The most cited supporting evidence are Law School Admission Test scores that have dipped significantly at some schools. In reality, an LSAT score is not law school or career destiny, but the erroneous perceptions of the test’s power nonetheless provide a useful frame through which to assess the exploitation meme.
 
The question of whether law schools are engaging in this unscrupulous behavior is an important one. The mere accusation is weighty. It implicates the very integrity of the admissions process and the vital role that law schools play as gatekeepers for the legal profession. Moreover, racial and ethnic differences in average LSAT scores suggest that a disproportionate number of exploited students would be black or Hispanic, placing the recent proportional increase in diversity into unfortunate context.   
 
Given these implications, I conducted an analysis of first-year law student enrollments at 196 law schools in the academic years of 2010-11 and 2013-14.   These two years represent a “feast to famine” transition in law school enrollments and, therefore, provide compellingly different lenses through which to consider enrollment behavior. I found that the 46 schools with the lowest LSAT medians experienced a statistically insignificant decline in average scores —150.7 in 2010 to 148.4 in 2013. More notably, however, nine of the schools in the grouping saw their 25th percentile score in 2013 fall below the group’s 2010 low of 143 (a 20th percentile score). Hapless students victimized by unscrupulous admissions practices would likely have LSAT scores below this threshold.    
 
While first-year enrollments declined across all racial and ethnic groups, black and Hispanic first-year enrollments experienced a proportional increase.  Among the 196 schools included in my analysis, black students were 7.5 percent of first-year enrollments in 2010 and 9.1 percent in 2013. Hispanic students made up 7.7 percent of first-year students in 2010 and 10 percent in 2013. These increases were driven in most part by schools with the lowest LSAT medians. Overall, black first-year enrollment decreased 5.9 percent; but among the lowest-median group, it increased 6.6 percent. Hispanic first-year enrollment remained essentially unchanged overall, but increased 8.1 percent among schools with the lowest-median scores.  
 
So what is the motivation behind these increases? Are they evidence of a perverse survival strategy? A much-needed commitment to diversifying the profession? A little of both? At this point, who knows? I guess time will tell, once we are able to plumb the student outcomes for guidance. Frankly, however, I think our scrutiny is mostly misplaced. Rather than asking why some schools are enrolling more black and Hispanic students, we should be asking why others are not enrolling more.  
 
In 2013, black and Hispanic students comprised of just 6 percent and 7.4 percent respectively of first-year students at the 36 schools with the highest LSAT medians. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of black and Hispanic first-year students attending these schools fell 21 percent and 13 percent respectively.  The result has been increased stratification in legal education, where black and Hispanic students were less likely to attend law schools considered “elite” in 2013 than in 2010, while white and Asian students were more likely. These trends are both alarming and disappointing. Alarming because this country’s leaders are disproportionately selected from this pool of schools. Disappointing because these schools have the resources and prominence to lead diversity efforts; yet, they are bringing up the rear.  
 
Legal education has never been a bastion of inclusion; but this dubious tradition is becoming increasingly untenable — merit-based rationalizations notwithstanding. In an increasingly diverse society, maintenance of the rule of law requires a legal profession that reflects the people. This is where leadership and, dare I say, sacrifice is needed from some of the country’s most prominent law schools. They are best positioned and arguably best suited to fundamentally change the make-up of the profession. If they truly embraced diversity, it would be surprising, but maybe not so suspicious. 
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