May 03, 2005
Fixing Law School Admissions
Posted by Christine Hurt

As I have talked about before (here, here, and here), I have been on our school's admissions committee this year.  I entered with excitement and energy.  I pored over files to get a holistic sense of each candidate.  I wanted to extend Marquette's commitment to cura personalis to even the admissions process.  However, each time I was inspired to diverge from the beaten path of merely looking at a candidate's numbers, I met up with the same brick wall:  USNWR rankings.

The USNWR requires law schools to report statistics about its incoming class each year.  The USNWR is not committed to cura personalis.  So, each time a committee member argues to admit a candidate with an interesting job background, volunteer background, life experience, or personal life goal, the ultimate question becomes "How bad will this hurt us in USNWR?"  For a school with a small entering class, each admittee can move the medians that USNWR reports and weights in its rankings system.  This is obviously the ultimate tail wagging the dog.

So, here are my modest proposals to fix the USNWR system so that the numbers that are reported more accurately reflect what they are supposed to reflect:  the "quality" of the incoming class.

1.  Require law schools to report only a student's gpa for the last two years of college.  When we are discussing a candidate with less than stellar grades, someone inevitably asks what the student's grade trajectory is.  Did the student start out pre-med, get bad grades, then switch to English and have all As the rest of the time?  Did the student start college, drop out, then start again with a new outlook?  I think it is a shame that a candidate who takes a less-than-linear approach to completing a bachelor's degree is unnecessarily judged by a stale gpa or a gpa that reflects a mistaken path.  We certainly don't want all law school students to take a low-risk undergraduate path designed to prevent gpa pitfalls.

2.  Don't require law schools to report gpa's for students if the gpa is over eight years old.  Not only do individuals change, but so do grading trends.  Most colleges give higher grades than they did ten years ago.  Therefore, judging a 30-year-old by the grades he or she was given ten years ago is not an accurate assessment of studiousness.  Applicants who have been in the professional world for a number of years should be judged based on their work experience, not on stale grades alone.

3.  Create other categories of reporting that reflects quality besides gpa and lsat.  Be creative.  Number of years work experience of incoming students?  Number of masters' degrees of incoming students?  Number of Ph.D.'s of incoming students?  Geographic diversity?  Undergraduate diversity?  These are items that we look at to get a picture of the quality of an applicant.  Perhaps in determining the quality of an incoming class for USNWR, these are the questions that the publication should ask as well.

4.  Rethink "selectivity" and "acceptance rate" categories.  These categories are very easy to manipulate.  In particular, the "selectivity" category incentivizes law schools to make low-risk acceptance decisions that do not benefit anyone.

5.  I can't think of a number 5 right now, but four suggestions doesn't seem to be enough.

I have more wrap-out thoughts about the admissions process for other posts.

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