Declining African American/Mexican American Matriculations to Law School?

A few days back, while I was away at the Federalist Society Faculty Division conference in New Orleans, Orin linked to a study out of Columbia’s “SALT” that reported declines in the percentage of African Americans and Mexican Americans matriculating in American law schools since 1993.

Orin tentatively attributed this decline to law schools becoming increasingly concerned about LSAT and GPA scores because these scores are so important to schools’ U.S. News rankings.

I have two related comments.  First, even if we assume that 1993 is the appropriate baseline year (and the study never explains why it is), we see that 9,577 African Americans and 1,434 Mexican Americans applied to law schools in 1992-93, compared to 9,030 and 1,130, respectively, in 2007-08.  In other words, there was a total of just over 11,000 African American and Mexican American applicants  at the beginning of the study period, compared to just 10,160 fifteen years later.  Nevertheless, almost exactly the same number of law students from these two groups matriculated in 2008 as in 1993: 4,060  in 2008, compared to 4,142 in 1993.

So, even though in 2008 there were almost one thousand fewer applicants, only eighty-two fewer individuals matriculated, meaning that a higher percentage of applicants ultimately matriculated.  And this despite the fact that in the interim, public law schools in several states, including, notably, California, Florida, and Michigan, have been legally barred from considering race in admissions.

So, in fact, there is no reason to think based on the statistics provided that law schools have become any less vigorous in their admission of African Americans and Mexican Americans.  ([Corrected:] The study claims that members of the two groups who apply to law school are increasingly well-qualified, but oddly enough, while the study notes an increase in GPAs and LSAT scores, it doesn’t compare these with the increases, if any, of other law school applicants.   Moreover, with regard to LSATs, African Americans’ applicants’ (median? average?) LSAT has increased from 142.6 to 143.7, but the significance of this increase is unclear; 143.7 is still well below the normal cutoff for the vast majority of law schools.

And that leads to my second comment.  U.S News is often blamed for discouraging law schools from admitting minority applicants with low GPAs or LSATs.  Indeed, I’ve heard that one reason various ABA poobahs pushed to require more “diversity” in admissions was the vague sense that some law schools were “cheating” by reducing their minority admissions to improve their U.S. News ranking.

U.S. News, however, only considers, and only has considered, medians, not averages.  While it’s possible to imagine scenarios in which the last few candidates a law school is considering include “diversity” candidates with below median scores and white or Asian candidates with above median scores, in practice in the vast majority of cases the choice will be between “diversity” candidates with below median scores in either LSAT or both GPA and LSATs, and non-minority candidates who are in a similar position.

So, for example, if a law school had one slot left, and the LSAT median of the students who had thus far committed to attending was 160 and the GPA median was 3.3, it wouldn’t make any difference for U.S. News purposes whether the school admited (a) a diversity candidate with a 148 and a 3.32, or a non-diversity candidate with a 157 and a 3.4, or (b) a diversity candidate with a 154 and a 2.7, or a non-diversity candidate with a 155 and a 3.0.  It’s therefore unlikely that U.S. News plays much of a role in discouraging law schools from digging deeper into the applicant pool to admit diversity candidates.

UPDATE: Ilya, above, points to a previous post of mine that I had forgotten about, regarding a similar study from the same crew.  I wrote then, “There are some real oddities with this study. First, the LSAC apparently changed its data collection methods in 2000, and an LSAC page (go to the “Data” link) warns that data starting that year is not comparable to earlier data, which would seem to make the entire exercise of comparing data from 1992 to data in 2005 moot.”  So this “study” is even more dubious than I first thought.