Wednesday, April 19, 2006
High Undergraduate GPAs at Top Law Schools: What Do They Mean and What Are Their Consequences for Legal Education?
Pamela Karlan, a distinguished expert on voting rights and civil procedure at Stanford Law School, writes:
I read, with both interest and a fair amount of distress, the 75th percentile LSAT rankings. The distress came from seeing the staggering 75th percentile GPAs.
These could reflect at least three states of the world, two of them unfortunate. First, and most optimistically, the 40 schools on your list could all be admitting kids with amazing undergraduate academic achievements. (A 3.96 means, for example a student with 34A's and 2 B+'s as an undergraduate; a 3.85 could mean half A's and half A-'s.)
Second, the GPA's could reflect rampant grade inflation at undergraduate institutions. Leave aside the abstract debate over whether the current generation of students is so much abler than its predecessors that good students should never see a grade below A- or B+. Most law schools have mandatory means or curves, and I'm aware of none where that mean is over around 3.4. (Even at the schools that don't have official means, I would guess the actual mean is no higher than that.) Thus, virtually all law students will have lower, substantially lower, GPA's in law school than they had in college. (E.g., at my own institution, 25% of the students had GPAs equivalent to what the number 1 student in the normal graduating class is likely to have.) This drop has a number of unfortunate consequences. Many of us are familiar with a huge demoralization effect the day first-semester grades come out and people who've been told all their lives that they are "A's" at everything that's measured hear for the first time that they're "B's." They give up, and simply float through the remaining five semesters. Many have a self-protective defensive reaction: if the law doesn't love them, then they distance themselves from it. In addition, at law schools where there are course-selection strategies that allow students to manipulate their GPA's, students are then drawn not to taking what's good or useful for them, but rather what's most likely to boost their GPAs back toward the range they've internalized as normal. The high UGPAs mean that many of our students have never really learned to bounce back from academic disappointment (the "C" I got my first semester of college is one of the best things that ever happened to me) and like learning to ride a bicycle, it's harder to learn that the older you get.
Third, to get those astronomical UGPA's, students necessarily had to be either (a) extraordinary across the board for their entire undergraduate career (the student who bombs the first year of college because she wasn't yet ready for the work or who was planning to be a physicist before he realized he didn't have the mathematical ability can't get one of these sky-high GPAs) or (b) strategic and risk-averse, taking only the kinds of courses in which they'd get A's, from the time they were 17 or 18 years old. I'd bet it's more the latter than the former. One of the things I always though the U.S. had over many other advanced countries was that we didn't expect students to specialize in only what they were good at when they were still teenagers. But in order to get a 3.9 UGPA, students really can't take things well outside their comparative advantages. Many of us see the consequences of this in what our students do: they're passive and non-entrepreneurial in their job choices, going to large firms not because that practice particularly attracts them, but because it seems less "risky" right out of law school than going to smaller firms or government jobs. Many of them haven't exercised their intellectual imaginations in years. Many are in fact not particularly well educated, since the science majors took few writing courses, the humanities people took perhaps one semester of economics and flee any quantitative subject, and the social and hard scientists know no American (let alone world) history at all.
Now, of course, we're talking here only about the 75th percentile. Perhaps we could find the students who are comfortable with risk, entrepreneurial, academically and intellectually adventurous, and resilient among the other three-quarters of the class. But even the 25th percentile at top 20 schools have staggering UGPAs. And that sets the tone for the student body.
I'm not sure, as long as US News drives so much of the world, that there's anything to be done. But it's frustrating if what we're trying to do is to train imaginative, entrepreneurial, courageous, resilient lawyers with broad perspectives that one of the central criteria for admitting students undermines our chances of doing that.
I find myself in rather strong agreement with Professor Karlan's observations. Comments are open; no anonymous postings; please post only once (comments may take awhile to appear).