LSAT, Bar Failure, and Debt

March 6th, 2016 / By

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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  • Sy Abelman

    If your data and assertions are correct, what do you believe will happen next? No name “Rank Not Published” law schools will not close. That has not happened to an ABA accredited law school since the 50s. Plus, these law schools have too much political “juice” in their respective communities to close and represent federal dollars flowing into that community like an obsolete military base or the A-10 Program. PORK. Given these political realities, tell me what will happen next to keep everything going?

    • VoteOutIncumbents

      Hillary will see that they get free government money.

    • Wayne Duncan

      The A-10 actually does what it was designed to do and still works.

  • Sy Abelman

    If it were about the BEST INTERESTS of young people, these law schools would have closed a long time ago. A good analogy is the prison system or the Chicago Teachers Union in Illinois. If Illinois were concerned with good prisoner outcomes, it would not have built so many facilities hundreds of miles away from family members., social service providers, treaters, attorneys and clergy. Those things help successfully integrate prisoners back into the community. Rural communities desperately wanted JOBS! It was politics, not the BEST INTERESTS of prisoners. They are just an after thought. Same deal with the Chicago Teachers Union….look at the years and years of poor student outcomes, yet their members make good coin…. The “Rank Not Published” law schools operate in the same manner.

  • DC

    I feel like the best way to keep people from failing the bar is to teach them how to take it. I’ve often wished I could have taken some kind of “mini bar” or even just a bar review course BEFORE ever going to law school–not even for the sake of passing the bar, but so I could have seen in advance what the law was actually like. The LSAT doesn’t measure much besides IQ, abstract logic, and reading comprehension. Granted, severely lacking any of those things might make it harder for you to practice law, but you can overcome them through…what’s that word again?…oh, yeah. Education. Something the law schools apparently aren’t doing as well as they might.

    • Ivar Ivarson

      This really takes me back. I took a Bar Exam study course on cassette tapes during the summer of 1974. Never slept so much. Still, the lessons seem to have seeped into my brain since I passed the [Ohio] bar exam. Of course, the Law School curriculum consisted solely of the case method and learning to brief a legal question. That’s important, but all other learning was either incidental or up to you. The Dean said, “There’s always room for good lawyers.”

      • DC

        Right, but if the problem is that law students don’t pass the bar, obviously they aren’t learning whatever it takes to pass the bar–whether in class or on their own. I don’t think the solution is “don’t admit those kids,” because you can’t tell in advance which ones they are. I do think an obvious solution is “Teach them how to take the bar, or at least tell them to learn it on their own. If they can’t learn it on their own, then teach them how to do that.”

  • Ivar Ivarson

    Make the public[ally-funded] interest firms intern the diversity graduates and try to beat them into shape for a year or so. If they then can’t pass the bar, they should be ideal bureaucrats.

  • Pingback: Instapundit » Blog Archive » HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE, LEGAL EDUCATION EDITION: Law School Debt Hits Minorities Hardest. …()

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