Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Law Schools "Obsessed With Smartness"

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article this week on colleges being "obsessed with smartness." The "pecking order" of higher education — and the ratings that we use to establish the quality of our colleges and universities — has come to depend almost entirely on acquiring smart students.... Colleges receive their place in the latest magazine rankings, in large part, based on their selectivity in admissions, and upon factors like retention and degree-completion rates. Guarding those rates leads us to select the best possible students — because, of course, they are the ones most easily retained and most likely to graduate.


The real purpose of a college education, by contrast, should be to develop smart students. Their development depends not on the quality of the entering class but on the quality of our teaching and the ability of our institutions to cultivate intellectual and affective skills. If our campuses were driven primarily by a desire to develop student talents, the quality of the incoming class would matter far less than it does now. Our concern would shift away from acquisition and toward development.

Like undergraduate institutions, law schools are doing the same thing. But law schools are squeezed at both ends. US News ranks law schools, in part, by incoming student credentials AND on bar passage rates after graduation. Thus law schools place a huge importance on incoming credentials - particularly a prospective student's LSAT score - to help determine the likelihood of bar passage. There is some correlation between LSAT and bar passage (not perfect but some).

As I've written before on this issue:
We already have issues with diversity in the legal field, and this sort of gatekeeping will continue to exacerbate the problem. This isn't because minorities or poor nonminority students are inherently stupid. It's because the current state of legal education and higher education, in general, advances students who have been supported [financially and other] and encouraged throughout their education with better schools and test prep, etc.... Instead of gatekeeping before law school, we should consider innovative ways of teaching during law school that will ensure success in the legal field on a broader scale. Of course there are other issues with the cost of legal education and making sure that students who take on the huge debt load for a JD degree can successfully take a bar exam, but that isn't done with LSAT score alone.

We have predictive analytics for nearly everything now - think Moneyball or Nate Silver - why haven't we adopted a more well-rounded approach to law school admissions? A well-rounded approach that also includes a human element. For any law school relying on LSAT as a sole (or nearly sole) predictor of success, it is adding to the economically biased admissions culture and making a professional degree all but unattainable for a large number of people.

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