Law schools admitting more at-risk students, study says

Law schools are accepting more at-risk students which will likely lead to lower bar passage rates in the near future, according to a study by Law School Transparency. 

“The bargain is clear: take larger, riskier classes now to survive and deal with the accreditation challenges, angry alumni, and bad press that follow later,” the report states.

Law School Transparency, a nonprofit watchdog organization, spent nine months reviewing incoming LSAT scores for law schools. The report shows that law schools have been admitting students with lower LSAT scores since applications began to decline in 2011. While the LSAT is designed to predict success in the first year of law school, Kyle McEntee, co-founder of Law School Transparency, said it is also a strong indicator for success on the bar exam.

Law School Transparency considers scores of between 150-152 a “modest risk.” Scores between 147 and 149 are “high risk.” Lower scores are “higher risk” and even lower ones are “extreme risk.”

The study found that the number of schools taking at-risk students has been climbing significantly during the past four years. The number of schools that admitted classes consisting of at least 25 percent at-risk students has climbed from 30 in 2010 to 74 in 2014. The number of schools that admitted classes with at least 50 percent at-risk students increased from nine to 37.

“The main point of the study is that schools, facing financial pressure, are making unethical choices,” said Kyle McEntee, co-founder of the nonprofit watchdog organization. 

McEntee said the effects of the trend are already being seen. Bar passage rates have been slipping and entering LSAT data suggest it will get worse.

Ten of 15 New York law schools recently reported drops in their bar passage rate. Five of the schools have seen rates drop by more than ten points in the past two years. 

Legal educators who have followed law school admission trends agree that the drop in LSAT scores is concerning. However, some, such as Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, question how much of an indicator the LSAT score is.

“LSAT is not the sole, or even best, predictor of bar pass rates or even first-year grades,” he said. “It does a good job, but there are better measures — the index score, which combines LSAT and UGPA, is a better predictor of both; and first-year law school GPA is a much better predictor for bar pass rates. But with limited data disclosed from schools, LSAT is an important factor to consider.”

Schools that have been identified by Law School Transparency as taking at-risk students say they don't just rely on LSAT scores when it comes to admissions. Valparaiso University School of Law in Valparaiso, Ind., was among the schools in accepting at-risk students.

LSAT scores for its 25th and 50th percentile of its 2010 class were 147 and 150. In 2014, those numbers fell to 141 and 145.

“Each application to Valparaiso University Law School undergoes a holistic file review by members of our Admissions Committee,” said Anne Brandt, the school's director of Marketing and Communications, in an email response.

“LSAT and undergraduate GPA provide a snapshot of student performance and can be predictors of future success, but those indices do not paint the completepicture of how well a student will perform in law school. While we must take those indices into account, we do not limit our admissions decisions to two numbers.”

The school, she said, prides itself that many of the “students are first-generation college students or are non-traditional law students and come from a variety of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.”

She continued: “One example of a risk well-taken is a recent graduate: She was a non-traditional student and had an LSAT of 141, yet once she enrolled at Valparaiso University Law School, she demonstrated exceptional performance and had the desire and resources to succeed. She graduated third in her class, proving that some students are worthwhile risks.”

McEntee said law schools are quick to highlight such success stories, but they don't tell the full story. Data tells the true story, he said.

However, he's not opposed to schools taking at-risk students — as long as they don't burden them with full tuition. Give them the break, he said, so law school isn't as great of a risk for them.