Potemkin Admissions: Law Professors Propose to Hide LSAT Data

George W. Dent

A movement is afoot to persuade law schools to withhold LSAT scores from U.S. News and World Report. The idea is to make it harder for the public to see how much the pursuit of racial preferences drags down the quality of admissions.  How have we reached the point where college professors can argue in full sincerity the outrageous position that the public should be kept in the dark? 

Let’s start with the U.S. News & World Report rankings.  Americans must sort through a myriad of conflicting claims of colleges and universities to determine which ones offer the best choices.  U.S. News & World Report rankings offer a first approximation answer.  They are of course an imperfect instrument. The rankings measure primarily a school’s reputation and the quality of its students, not the quality of its education. And since reputation is based in part on the U.S. News rankings, the rankings are somewhat circular, self-reinforcing.  When many schools are roughly equal, tiny differences in ratings criteria can produce large differences in rankings.

However, the rankings do help to keep schools honest. Any Podunk can claim to be the best college in the universe, but the claim rings hollow if U.S. News rates it near the bottom of the barrel. And a school can pump up its coffers by admitting only wealthy students paying high tuition without regard to educational ability, but then its academic inferiority will stand out in U.S. News.

U.S. News’ rankings, despite their reliance on “reputation,” are a stab at the difficult problem of sorting out what makes a college worthwhile.  One thing that U.S. News gets right is that the quality of a college depends a lot on the quality of students it admits.  But how does a college make sure it admits high quality students?  Long ago, the answer at many colleges was entrance examinations, but over time, they were watered down and discontinued.  And for a period academic merit counted for little in university admissions. The few schools that were at all selective took students based not on academics but on ethnic and sociological status--and wealthy WASPs were preferred. Schools did this in part for lack of reliable academic predictors. High school grade curves varied too much to be very useful. The best predictor of college performance was graduation from a venerable prep school--which also favored wealthy WASPs.

The creation of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (now the SAT Reasoning Test but still called the SAT) and then the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) changed that. With admissions based on SAT scores, schools could be compared on this basis. This didn’t measure the quality of education directly but, since the best students seek the schools with the best education (and interaction with fellow students is an important part of higher education), SAT scores served as a decent proxy of educational quality.

SALT for Racial Wounds

Once upon a time “progressives” applauded admissions based on academic merit rather than status. That day is long gone. I am a professor of law and see this most vividly in connection with law school admissions. The leftist Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) wants to squelch U.S. News’ law school rankings by pressuring law schools to refuse to submit their LSAT statistics.

Their reason is that the prominence of the LSAT in law school rankings makes it hard for schools to ignore the LSAT and admit “diverse” classes. This means that SALT wants to admit more members of certain racial minorities who tend not to do well on the LSAT.

Is this a flaw in the LSAT? Do minority students generally do better in law school than their LSAT scores predict? No. In fact, Professor Lino Graglia at the University of Texas Law School has shown that LSAT scores slightly overpredict their grades.

Can adding other factors improve prediction of law school performance? College GPA (weighted for the quality and grade curve of the college) can help, but adding this factor does not increase minority admissions. Other factors (such as “life experiences” and “overcoming hardship”) are expensive to include because they require extensive review of individual applications (and invite dishonesty), and they have not been shown to improve predictions.

Does racial diversity improve the quality of education? Many studies claim that it does, but all these studies have been shown to be shoddy. Rigorous studies find no improvement, which is hardly surprising. Why would the race of the student next to you affect your understanding of the Rule Against Perpetuities?

As a representative of U.S. News pointed out, it’s doubtful that its rankings actually do create pressure to exclude low-performing minorities. U.S. News uses the 75th and 25th percentiles of a school’s LSAT scores. The LSATs of the bottom 24% of have no effect on the U.S. News ratings. This means that the SALTers are either mathematical illiterates who do not realize this fact, or that they want racial preferences to exceed 24% of each class.

Another mystery is why SALT cares about U.S. News ratings. Any school that doesn’t care about academic merit can easily fill all its seats. Evidently SALT realizes that alumni, university presidents, state legislators, and others would not tolerate being ranked at the bottom. SALTers probably also want the benefits of academic excellence in “regular admits” (they pass the bar exam, get jobs, and eventually donate money) while applying lower standards to minorities.

The SALT initiative is even more interesting because of its ultimate dishonesty. A law school can simply publicize its admissions criteria and their impact on its U.S. News rating. If law school applicants and others approve, the school’s standing will not suffer.  Apparently SALT realizes that this would not happen. Most Americans oppose racial discrimination and, at least for public law schools, confessing to racial preferences in admissions would invite a law suit. And most law school applicants value academic excellence over racial diversity.

Stealth Preferences

SALT could simply accept these consequences of doing what it thinks is right, but it refuses to do so. Rather, it wants to expand racial preferences but hide its conduct from the public. The U.S. News ratings prevent it from doing so.

Fortunately, SALT’s effort will fail. To get all law schools to withhold LSAT data would require an agreement that would violate antitrust laws. Without an agreement, few schools if any will be willing to flout the U.S. News ratings. U.S News can also get LSAT data independently, though it takes a bit longer so that it would have to use year-old data for uncooperative schools.

Moreover, if U.S. News ended its rankings, someone else would provide them or something very similar. Law school is costly in both money and time. Before incurring such expenses consumers seek good information. U.S. News satisfies that demand; if it didn’t, someone else would. To some extent others already provide college guides and other information about higher education, though they lack the statistical analysis found in U.S. News.  If U.S. News abandoned that niche, others would fill it.

Dissatisfaction with the statistical underrepresentation of certain minorities in higher education and various professions is proper. The solution, however, is not to admit minority students to schools where they are much less qualified than the “regular admits,” but to increase the interest and preparation of minority students in education and the professions. This solution requires much greater time and effort, though, which is surely why SALT and other “progressives” eschew it.

George W. Dent is the Schott-van den Eynden Professor of Business Organizations Law at Case Western Reserve School of Law and president of the Ohio affiliate of the National Association of Scholars. 

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