Race, Debt, and Opportunity

March 10th, 2016 / By

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.

The Growing Gap

LSSSE’s report compares debt levels in 2006, 2011, and 2015. In the first of those years, “there were only marginal racial and ethnic differences” in the percentage of students who expected to accumulate more than $100,000 of debt for their legal education (p. 12).

By 2011, however, “clear disparities emerged,” among those racial groups, “with Black and Latino respondents more likely to expect debt at this level.” And by 2015, these racial disparities “became more intense.” Sixty-one percent of Black students now expect to borrow more than $100,000 to finance their legal education; more than half (56%) of Latino/a students are in the same boat. For white and Asian American students, the figure is just 40%. [All references to p. 12]

That’s a lot of debt for students of all races, but the racial disparity is marked. Why are debt loads so heavy for Black and Latino/a students? And why has the debt gap between those students and their white/Asian peers widened over the last decade?

The Why

In part, the racial debt gap reflects racial differences in wealth. Drawing upon data analyzed by the Pew Research Center, LSSSE notes that the median white household in our country has a net worth of $141,900, while Latino/a households register a median net worth of $13,700 (p. 12). For Black households, the median is just $11,000 (p. 12). (Pew did not include Asian American households in its analysis.)

Racial wealth differences, however, existed in 2006 as well as 2015. Why did the racial gap in law school debt widen so much over those years? For that, law schools must take responsibility. Over the last decade, we have shifted much of our scholarship money to target high LSATs–rather than to address financial need.

LSSSE’s report shows this trend quite clearly. For students with LSAT scores of 155 or below, debt levels have climbed over the last decade. In 2006, just 16% of those students expected to owe more than $120,000 for their legal education. By 2015, that percentage had more than doubled–to 37% (p. 13).

For students with higher LSAT scores, debt levels have increased more slowly. The percentage accumulating more than $120,000 of law school debt rose from 16% in 2006 to just 24% in 2011. Over the next four years, this percentage actually fell: In 2015, only 20% of students with high LSAT scores expected to borrow more than $120,000 to pay for law school (p. 13).

Students with high LSAT scores, in fact, are increasingly likely to graduate from law school debt free. In 2006, 12% of students scoring above 155 accomplished that feat; by 2015, 20% of those students anticipated doing so (p. 13). That increase is particularly striking given the rising costs of law school attendance.

Lost Opportunities

As LSSSE notes, family wealth correlates with high LSAT scores (p. 13). As law schools shifted funds from need-based scholarships to LSAT-targeted ones, economically disadvantaged students suffered a double whammy: They were less likely to produce the shiny LSAT scores rewarded by schools, and they were less likely to find need-based scholarships.

Given our society’s racial imbalance in family wealth, these disadvantages disproportionately burdened Black and Latino/a students. They are the ones who are borrowing large sums to attend law school–despite the promises of opportunity that we continue to make.

The relationships among wealth, race, and LSAT scores are well known. When law schools shifted money from need-based scholarships to LSAT-targeted ones, they knew that Black and Latino/a students would suffer. We may not have intended that result–and a few schools may have worked to avoid it–but the outcome was inevitable. We haven’t been creating opportunity with our scholarship programs; we’ve been legitimizing a flawed ranking system.

False Opportunities

Some law schools have done worse than that: They have compounded the harm to low-income students by admitting applicants with little chance of passing the bar exam. Rather than offer these students real opportunity, in the form of scholarships and solid prospects, schools have saddled them with large debt loads, unfinished degrees, and weak career prospects. The schools, meanwhile, stay in business.

These practices harm all low-income students but, once again, we know that Black and Latino/a applicants disproportionately suffer economic disadvantage. Urging those students to enroll in high-cost programs, with little scholarship support or likelihood of success, does not open doors; instead, it buries students in the rubble of a collapsed doorway.


Today, legal education offers its most valuable opportunities to students with high LSAT scores. Those students receive attractive scholarships from multiple schools, giving them the opportunity to attend law school at low cost. Often, they enjoy yet another opportunity: to use their family’s wealth to attend a higher-ranked but more expensive school. These are privileged students indeed.

Other students face much more limited opportunities. Those students, with lower LSAT scores, do not receive substantial scholarship offers. If they come from low-income or middle-class backgrounds, they must borrow heavily to attend law school. If these students do receive scholarship offers, they do not have the luxury of rejecting those offers in favor of attending a higher-ranked, more expensive law school; their family circumstances make that choice too risky.

The students with limited choices, sadly, help pay for the attractive opportunities offered their more privileged peers. Law schools fund their LSAT-targeted scholarships with money collected from students who pay full tuition (or receive much smaller scholarships). The latter students borrow money, not only to finance their own education, but to support opportunities for others.

The LSSSE data tell us that Black and Latino/a law students disproportionately fall in the latter category. They are not the recipients of opportunity today; they are the debtors who support opportunity for others.





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