Commentary

Are Financially Desperate Law Schools Using a ‘Reverse Robin Hood Scheme’ to Stay Afloat?

April 10, 2016

P lummeting law-school enrollments across the country have made seats in entering classes more accessible than at any time in recent memory. That can be both good news and bad news for black and Latino students aspiring to practice law.

As a result of the trend, practically every law school is smaller today than it was in 2010. The fall-2015 entering class was almost 30 percent smaller than the record 2010 class. That decline would have represented the equivalent of about 60 average-size law schools in 2010. Some 39 schools received fewer total applications during the 2015 cycle than the number of admissions offers they made in 2010. Think about that. These are truly trying times. Law-school admissions and financial-aid offices have deployed an array of coping, if not survival, strategies.

The most salient one has been to admit a larger proportion of applicants than in previous years. Since 2010, the admission rate among all law-school applicants has increased from 31 percent to 44 percent. More significantly, the median rate among law schools in 2015 was 54 percent, meaning that applicants at more than half the law schools in the country had better than 50-50 odds of gaining admission. By contrast, the median in 2010 was 35 percent. Twenty-four law schools in 2015 had admission rates of 70 percent or higher, compared with just two in 2010.

Embedded in those trends are a couple of potential bright spots. The proportion of entering black and Latino students was its highest ever in 2015 — 21 percent, compared with 15 percent in 2010. The legal profession is infamous for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, so any increase in law students from underrepresented groups is cause for optimism.

What’s more, socioeconomic diversity may be increasing as well. In 2015 just under 30 percent of respondents to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement indicated that neither of their parents possessed a bachelor’s degree. This was the highest proportion of such responses since 2013, the first year the question was posed on the survey. Parental education is a common proxy for socioeconomic status; so, again, it appears that the downturn has brought about a broadening of opportunity, if only by necessity.

But the trends, while encouraging, create a heightened imperative for law schools to be ethical in their admissions practices and equitable in allotting financial aid. As admission rates and diversity have increased, the LSAT scores of those admitted have decreased, significantly in some cases. The declines have raised suspicions that, purely to generate revenue, some schools are enrolling students who have no chance of becoming lawyers. An LSAT score is not destiny, so those trends do not much concern me; I am much more troubled by emerging student-debt trends.

Data from the student-engagement survey suggest that the students least able to afford law school are the ones stuck with the highest costs. As legal education has become more expensive over the past decade, racial and ethnic disparities in expected student debt have emerged. In 2015 almost 60 percent of black or Latino survey respondents said they expected to incur more than $100,000 in law-school debt, compared with 40 percent of white and Asian respondents. Those disparities are of recent vintage; in 2006 there were virtually no racial and ethnic disparities in debt expectations. Similar disparities were observed when parental education was considered. Students whose parents did not have college degrees expected higher levels of debt.

It is through the lens of student debt that the exploitation-as-survival theory really takes hold. Too many law schools are inducing students to take on debt that under no reasonable set of circumstances will they be able to repay. In the meantime, they are heaping scholarships of increasing amounts on the relatively few high-LSAT scorers still applying to law schools. Those beneficiaries are less likely to be black, Latino, or from low socioeconomic backgrounds. In the end, disadvantaged students end up subsidizing the attendance of their more privileged peers — a reverse ­Robin Hood scheme that is as regressive as it is indefensible.

Today, with higher law-school tuition rates and lower expectations of benefits for graduates, financial-aid policies that foist the highest costs on the poorest students are untenable — and unethical. Opportunity devoid of equity is little more than exploitation. Legal education must do better, and soon.

Aaron N. Taylor is an assistant professor in the School of Law at Saint Louis University and director of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement.