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.”
Reader comments on this story:
There are currently 4 reader comments on this story:
“only half the battle”
-Patricia Y. Young
“What about Native American applicants?”
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.
“the financial aspect”
“the culmination of years of educational disparity”
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