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Members of Congress Want Investigation Into Black Law Student Decline

Congressional leaders are calling for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office into why Black enrollment in law school is declining while overall enrollment is up.

Members of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, including committee chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and ranking Democrat George Miller of California, sent a letter to the GAO asking it to do a “quick, turn-around study on the accreditation process conducted by the American Bar Association and an examination of the enrollment and completion trends of minority students in law school.” U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, has also joined the request.

“In law schools throughout the country, the number of Black applicants, students and graduates are all declining,” she says. “At the same time, overall law school enrollment is on the rise. I am pleased with the bipartisan commitment to examining this important issue.”

Tubbs Jones says she attributes the decline to an over-reliance on standardized testing and the ABA’s accrediting process. She says the ABA has rejected or delayed the accreditation applications of law schools based on their LSAT scores and has threatened sanctions against accredited law schools unless they raise their minimum scores. Many of these schools serve the Black community.

Hulett H. Askew, an ABA consultant on legal education, said the ABA does not set a minimum LSAT score. He added that new standards for schools to achieve diversity were adopted by the ABA House of Delegates in August. 

“We’re not telling schools to raise their scores,” he says. “Everybody is keenly aware that applications and admissions have gone down. We are working on programs for a diverse student body, faculty and staff.

“Law schools should not admit students who are not capable of completing the program. We don’t want institutions taking advantage of students, or taking them for two years and then fail them out,” Askew says. While the ABA will recommend that schools with low bar passage rates not admit underqualified students, “it does not say to schools that your LSAT scores are too low.”

Askew, who heads the accreditation project for the Section of Legal Education, says law schools are encouraged to use undergraduate GPAs, leadership ability, involvement in the community and employment history as criteria for admission along with the LSAT. According to Tubbs Jones, nationally, Black law school enrollment peaked in 1994 and has declined by 2 percent since then. In a letter soliciting support of the Congressional Black Caucus, she wrote, “Between 2002 and 2004, 69 of the 84 schools in the eight largest law school markets raised their 25th percentile LSAT scores, and 43 of those 69 saw their African-American student enrollment decrease by an average of 19 percent.”

“The ABA is the [U.S.] Department of Education’s official designee for the accreditation of law schools, and schools must be accredited by the ABA for students to be eligible for federal student loans,” Tubbs Jones says.

Much of the data she cites refers to research and an article by John Nussbaumer, an associate dean at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, in Michigan. The article, “Misuse of the Law School Admissions Test: Racial Discrimination and the De Facto Quota System for Restricting African-American Access to the Legal Profession,” was published in the St. John’s Law Review in March. The article suggests that accreditors pressure law schools to limit the number of students they accept with LSAT scores of less than 141 out of a possible 180. That “de facto cutoff score” closes the door to many Black applicants, whose mean scores are around 143 to 144.

Tubbs Jones and the committee members have requested expedited study, because the ABA’s application to remain the official accrediting agency for law schools is currently pending. The group requested that the study be completed by next month.

It wasn’t clear if the GAO would accept the assignment. Paul Anderson, the watchdog agency’s public affairs managing director, says he is checking on the status of the request.

“We do reviews in areas of higher education quite frequently. Every request goes through a process of review internally to see if work has already been done in this area,” he says. “We seek to determine whether other federal agencies such as the Department of Education might have looked at this issue previously. One of the key questions is whether there is an appropriate federal nexus. We make sure it’s an appropriate review for GAO to undertake.”

-Dianne Hayes


Reader comments on this story:

There are currently 4 reader comments on this story:

“only half the battle”
Admission and completing law and completeing the program is only half the battle.  You still have pass a very subjective exam to pratice.  While I think I have the knowledge to pass the Alabama Bar Exam… after three attempts I still have not passed. To the best of my knowledge there are approximately 10,000 lawyers in Alabama only 500 are black.  There not that many dumb black people anywhere.  Many of my law school mates have been unable to pass the bar, many of whom a very intellengant individuals.  This exam does not in to way measure anyones knowledge base.  The question is– Why go to law school for 3-4 years and only have 20-30% chance of passing the bar.

-Patricia Y. Young
Madison, Alabama

“What about Native American applicants?”
I believe the issue does need to be investigated in order to find out why African American applicants have decreased. I do wonder why it has to be a country wide problem before we raise concern.

     As a Native American student I am interested to find out exactly what the percentage or numbers for the decline are, and where it was. I also would like to see the numbers on Native American applicants too. It is rare that Native Americans are in the media facing similar obstacles. Sometimes I think we are invisible! We are 2% of the population.  

-Charla Burton
Mt. Pleasant, MI

“the financial aspect”
The article did not mention another issue that might be contributing to the decline of African-American law students, the financial aspect. Majority of law school students take an LSAT prep course to help them prepare. However some AA’s might not have the $1300 needed to take a course. Also federal student aid for grad students (with the exception of med students) is limited to $18,500 annually. With most tuitions in the 30k range (not counting fees, room & board), students have to take out private loans to cover the difference. Some AA’s just can’t qualify for a $20k private loan from a bank. And unfortunately, most do not come from households where Mommy & Daddy can just pay the difference. So what can they do? Nothing. To quote what my school’s financial aid advisor told me when I asked what happens if I can’t get a private loan, “If you can’t find the money, you won’t be going.”


Chicago, IL

“the culmination of years of educational disparity”
I would like to share my thoughts on this article, partly to respond to the insightful comments made by the three previous respondents.  The decline of African American applicants to graduate schools across the board and the limitations of standardized testing is quite complex.  Unfortunately, there are licensing exams, which typically are standardized, and typically written in such away that the majority population who attend schools in majority school districts are better prepared to understand both the correct answers and the distractors than minority students.  Also, the successful students tend to come from geographic areas that value good performance on standardized tests.  The graduate level is the culmination of years of educational disparity – somewhat akin to the “glass ceiling.”  The majority is willing to take a chance to a certain point, but not beyond.  Although it may seem like “selling out,” some thought should be given to looking at preparedness for college at the middle and high school levels.  For example, the people writing the SAT questions come from the environment where the “100 Great Books” were valued and respected regardless of their social content.  It would seem that students coming from areas where these books are not even considered or discussed may be at a disadvantage when taking any standardized test.  Also, I have seen in my area an over-emphasis on science and technology at the expense of reading and writing at the middle and high school levels.  The educational disparity gap is frighteningly wide, and economic factors and reckless competition among suburban kids and their parents is contributing to the growing gap.  Thus, legislating who gets into medical, dental, law, etc. schools will not fix the problem because licensing exams will prevent high quality, compassionate people from ever practicing, even if they are able to complete their graduate degrees.  Some attention should be paid to figuring out the root of the problem in lower performing public schools which, often consist of minority and lower income students whose daily concerns never even cross the minds of the suburban, SUV-wielding students.  Students from all cultural, economic, and experiential backgrounds greatly enhance the educational environment for all.  It should be our responsibility to ensure that graduate schools are allowed to invest in the success of their diversity populations.


Bethesda, MD

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