How schools should act when it comes to transfer requests

The American Bar Association, which accredits U.S. law schools, mandates that schools demonstrate both efforts and success at minority recruitment. As such, law schools compete highly over a small sub-group of applicants. In order to achieve their diversity goals, schools often admit some minority students with credentials more in line with those attending next-level schools. Scholars have written about the resulting mismatch effect, wherein some cherry-picked students suffer a harm caused by being in a learning environment incongruent with their skill-sets, which could have been avoided by attending a school with a more similarly skilled student body. The literature continues that this effect cascades as one progresses down the tiers of law schools. Of course, minority and non-minority students alike whose abilities are on par with their colleagues don't experience the mismatch effect. Unfortunately, many applicants often are unaware of this phenomenon. The result is that some students are not optimally positioned when attending law school. While the ABA requires information about the immediately previous classes be posted by each law school on their websites, schools would better serve students by specifically informing those in the lowest quartile of the incoming class as to their standing and chance for success, because many law students are not focused enough on this issue to delve into this material. Significant downward departure from the average LSAT scores and GPAs (adjusting for the relative rigor of the applicant's undergraduate institution) of a potential place of study should give applicants (and schools) pause. Once in law school, students face a further dilemma if they consider whether to transfer to a higher-ranked school. First, will these potentially upwardly mobile students create or exacerbate the aforementioned mismatch effect in climbing the academic ladder? The chances of this occurring for some cohorts are enhanced given the aforementioned system of minority recruitment. For potential transferors, having completed a year of study will well represent each student's relative strength in the class. Armed with this information, along with the ABA-required disclosure of the potential transfer-accepting schools, students should be capable of making this calculation if they have been made aware of the mismatch effect. Ideally, schools would have already explained this phenomenon to the student body. The second concern arises in the context of seeking both advice and recommendations from one's home school. Particularly in the current environment of dramatically reduced law-school applications, schools' financial concerns in retaining students may not coincide with students' academic and professional interests. In addition, schools are highly motivated to retain minority student enrollment, as the ABA measures minority graduation, rather than mere admittance. Thus, schools face competing forces of institutional economics and diversity, on the one hand, and the expressed interests of potential transferees, on the other. Although this situation makes for uncomfortable choices, the ethics of the matter are quite simple. Schools should be candid with students as to each applicant's relative strength and the school's willingness, based thereon, to actively support a transfer application. In this regard, one universal policy suffices: if a first-year student is in the top echelon of the class at the end of the second semester, the school should actively support a transfer application, if the student so desires. As a student's standing moves down the class, the school should increasingly advise against such action but — critically — not actively undermine it. This might seem counterintuitive, given the very real consequences of the mismatch effect discussed above. But the policy is designed to prevent the mismatch problem from serving as cover for parochial institutional motives divorced from the best interests of the students. Accordingly, a school should never refuse to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of a student seeking to transfer — even if the school is right in recommending against such a course of action due to the mismatch effect — as the school's efforts too easily could be unconsciously driven by a desire to augment the school's income (and/or diversity). Institutional self-interest dressed up as educational paternalism is the archetype of academic corruption and must be eschewed. Instead, when asked to support a transfer application, a school should inform all students that it will write honest appraisals. Thereafter, all letters of recommendation for transfer applications should be shared with their subjects, as matter of institutional policy. When confronted with a student not well suited academically for transfer upward, the home school, upon request, should write a letter of recommendation that briefly describes the basic facts of the student's standing, abilities, and accomplishments. At the same time, the school should counsel the student as to the dangers of the mismatch effect. This uniform policy will remove, as much as possible, the risk of schools making decisions regarding their students' transfer applications based on extraneous concerns. In deciding which school to attend in the first instance, applicants should inquire from prospective schools the expected academic profile of the incoming class, the schools' prediction of the student's future success, and the schools' practices and policies on transferring after completion of the first year of legal studies. Ideally, schools will develop and post on their websites a policy similar to the one outlined above. A clear understanding of each party's expectations will avoid confusion and hurt feelings later on.