Last fall, Law School Transparency (LST) released a detailed study of declining LSAT scores among entering law students. Drawing upon data from several sources, the report warned that students with LSAT scores below 150 suffer increasing risks of failing the bar exam. For students with scores below 145, the risk is extreme. One school, for example, reported that only 16% of graduates in that category passed the bar on their first attempt. The eventual pass rate for those students was just 36%.
LST also offered evidence that these high-risk students are paying more for their legal education than students with a better chance of becoming lawyers. Schools that admit a substantial number of high-risk students offer fewer tuition discounts than other schools. Scholarships at high-risk schools are also more likely to be conditional (and forfeited) than scholarships at schools admitting lower risk students.
The highly regarded Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) just added an alarming data point to this analysis. LSSSE reports that 52% of law students with the lowest LSAT scores (145 or less) expect to incur over $120,000 of debt for their legal education. In contrast, only 20% of students with LSATs above 155 will owe that much.
The highest risk students are assuming very heavy debt loads for their legal education. Equally disturbing, the difference between those students and their classmates has grown substantially since the great recession. In 2006, LSSSE notes, debt loads did not differ much by LSAT score. Sixteen percent of students who scored above 155 expected to owe more than $120,000 for their legal education; for students scoring at that cut-off or below, the percentage was the same.
In 2011, the gap was much wider. A third (33%) of students scoring at 155 or below anticipated law school debt over $120,000. For higher scoring students, the percentage was just 24%. This year, the gap has widened even more. Only one-fifth (20%) of higher-scoring students expect to owe over $120,000 for their legal education. Among those students, the percentage amassing high debt levels has decreased–despite rising tuition levels and modest inflation.
Students with LSAT scores of 155 or below, on the other hand, are even more likely than in the past to assume high debt levels. Thirty-seven percent of those students now anticipate owing more than $120,000 for their legal education. And, as reported above, the percentage is even higher for those with the lowest LSAT scores: More than half of students with LSAT scores below 146 will owe over $120,000 for their law school degrees. Those are the very students at very high risk of failing the bar.
LSSSE’s public report doesn’t distinguish among law schools, so we can’t tell if this disparity reflects admissions and financial aid decisions at a large number of law schools–or whether it stems from the actions of a small number of schools. LST’s report suggests that the latter is true: A few dozen law schools are admitting a substantial number of students at high risk of failing the bar. The same schools may also be responsible for the high debt load assumed by those students.
But whether it’s a few schools or most schools, this is an issue that affects all ABA-accredited law schools. We all participate in a system of accreditation that signals quality and fairness to applicants. Do we want to perpetuate a system in which an increasing number of high-risk students take on the heaviest debt loads?
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