Yes, we can. I offer some ideas in this column posted at Bloomberg’s Big Law Business.
I wrote last summer about an important paper showing that non-white law students earn lower law school grades than their white classmates, even after controlling for LSAT score, undergraduate grades, and a host of other variables. That paper, written by Alexia Brunet Marks and Scott Moss, analyzed students enrolled at the University of Colorado and Case Western University schools of law.
A new study, authored by Daniel Schwarcz and Dion Farganis, documents the same effect among students at the University of Minnesota Law School. Schwarcz and Farganis’s primary research interest focuses on the educational impact of individualized feedback given to first-year law students. Paul Caron, Michael Simkovic, and Lawrence Solum have already discussed those parts of the paper; I hope to add some of my thoughts soon.
While analyzing the impact of feedback, however, Schwarcz and Farganis produced even more striking results related to race. The researchers, in fact, document a race effect that is almost twice as large as the feedback one. Receiving individualized feedback from a first-year professor, they found, was associated with a .108 rise in the student’s grade in the target class. That difference emerged after controlling for LSAT score, UGPA, and several other factors.
Being a U.S. born minority student, on the other hand, was associated with a .209 fall in the student’s grade. Once again, that association emerged after controlling for LSAT score, UGPA, and several other factors. The negative association for race was almost twice as large as the positive association for feedback.
As Schwarcz and Farganis acknowledge, statistical association does not prove causation; other variables might explain the positive relationship they found between individualized feedback and grades. It is hard, however, to imagine what those other variables might be in the case of the negative relationship between minority race and grades. And now we have two well controlled studies documenting that negative relationship. (A third study, by John Fordyce et al., is in press and I am working to obtain a copy of it.)
I look forward to discussing the pedagogic implications of the Schwarcz and Farganis feedback study; their paper offers a lot of food for thought. But I also hope colleagues will discuss their finding about the association between race and law school grades. Why are law schools failing their minority students in this way?
Education opens doors. In law schools, we have tried for decades to open one particular door: the one that welcomes more minority graduates into the profession. In some ways, we have succeeded admirably. The percentage of minority law graduates almost tripled between 1983 and 2012, from 8.6% to 24.2%. The absolute number of those graduates rose almost four-fold during the same years, from 3,169 per year to 11,951 annually.
Today, all of us can name successful minority lawyers, judges, and law professors–as well as minority business people, nonprofit directors, and policymakers with law degrees. Legal education can even point with pride to the first African American President of the United States.
Just as the doors started to open, however, new obstacles emerged. Research shows that minority students earn lower law school grades than white students–even after controlling for entering credentials. We have also dramatically raised the cost of legal education as our student bodies diversified. And, perhaps most disturbing, we now know that these high costs fall disproportionately on Black and Latino/a students. New data from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) show that these students assume substantially more law school debt than their white and Asian American classmates. That debt gap is new–and growing.
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