Monday, April 17, 2006

Socio-Economic Diversity?

A staff member at a top law school writes:

I currently work at a top ten law school (US News Rankings) and have been a bit shocked about the general type of students that are admitted. Despite all of the focus on diversity, it seems that there is a great deal of homogeneity among the students when it comes to the socio-economic makeup of their families--most come from affluent backgrounds--at least at the school I work at.

I am concerned about this due to my background. I am from a small farming community in Idaho, the first college graduate in my family, and grew up in poverty. I have first-hand experience with the obstacles individuals from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds face when applying to law school (I am trying to get in now).

To what extent is diversity an element of law school rankings (especially yours)? To what extent to you think socio-economic factors will come into play in the future of the admissions game? I know California tried to make up for the state's decision to get rid of race based affirmative action by introducing a socio-economic model. Has Texas ever considered a similar approach?

Your thoughts would be appreciated. Thank you.

Socio-economic diversity is not a factor in any of my rankings, first, because I do not know of any database that would provide the requisite information; and second, because the connection between diversity along any demographic dimension and educational experience is fairly tenuous and speculative.  (Back before Justice Powell ruined public discourse about affirmative action by introducing "diversity" talk, it used to be much clearer why schools practiced affirmative action:   compensatory justice and social engineering, the latter, of course, being a longstanding feature of admissions practices at elite institutions.) 

That being said, I was certainly struck the year I taught at Yale Law School by how homogenous the student body was in terms of class--much more so than Texas which, ironically, was laboring under the restictions of Hopwood at that time.  In fact, as a result of Hopwood, Texas did add proxies for race and ethnicity (such as class background and region of the state) to the admissions criteria; I believe they are still in place, though I am not involved with admissions (except for JD/PhD candidates, a rather small pool obviously).

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What basis do you make your judgments about socio-economic status? Clothing? I can assure you that many of my students are by no means affluent, and they come from neighborhoods far from suburban. I don't find summaries of 'the general type of students' to be very illuminating. I bet the rich student from NYC is struck by how many 'poor' people there are at YLS.

Posted by: Michael Machen | Apr 17, 2006 7:13:27 AM

One can usually draw reliable (albeit defeasible) inferences about class background from a combination of dress, manner of speaking, and anecdotal information about life experiences, the kind that crops up in ordinary conversation. YLS may well be more homogenous than Chicago, about that I have no information.

Posted by: Brian Leiter | Apr 17, 2006 8:09:13 AM

Do schools not publish data on need-based financial aid? I imagine that this sort of data is just as prone to deliberate manipulation as other data that U.S. News publishes, but it might be a starting point.

As for the extent to which one can figure out the class background of students, I think it's much more difficult to tell in law school than it is in undergrad. Because all law school students have spent 4 years in college at least, anyone who is from a "disadvantaged" background has already begun a transition out of it. You could be the first literate person in your family, but 4 years of college, 2 years of a well-paying job, and a trip to Brooks Brothers, and the casual observer would never know.

At age 17/18, on the other hand, people from disadvantaged backgrounds are just beginning that sort of background, and the transition is much more apparent.

I had very little idea about the socio-economic circumstances of my classmates, except for a small group that I got to know well. I have no idea if those people are representative or not.

Posted by: B. Burgess | Apr 17, 2006 8:40:31 AM

I went to an Ivy League college and a public law school; while neither was a model of socioeconomic diversity, law school was actually the less diverse of the two. I've thought a lot about the reasons for this, and I think possible causes might be that: 1) taking on a lot of debt (and forgoing three years of earnings) seems much more daunting when you don't have family support to fall back on; 2) students from lower- or middle-class backgrounds are subject to less parental pressure to go on to professional school after college. (I deduce this from the fact that a huge proportion of my class, perhaps something approaching a third, seemed to have family members who were lawyers.)

Posted by: Recent Grad | Apr 17, 2006 8:42:51 AM

If the trend in undergraduate education is any indication, law schools likely are also becoming less socio-economically diverse. The following information on undergrads came from a NY Times article in April of 2004.

"Over all, at the 42 most selective state universities, including the flagship campuses in California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and New York, 40 percent of this year's freshmen come from families making more than $100,000, up from about 32 percent in 1999, according to the Higher Education Research Institute. Nationwide, fewer than 20 percent of families make that much money. The recent increase has continued a two-decade trend that extends well beyond the best-known colleges.

In 2000, about 55 percent of freshmen at the nation's 250 most selective colleges, public and private, were from the highest-earning fourth of households, compared with 46 percent in 1985, according to the institute, which is based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The number from the bottom fourth dipped slightly over that period, while those from the middle 50 percent fell sharply. In many cases, the less wealthy students went to less selective schools, including lower-ranked campuses of state universities."

The article goes on to say that those statistics, many of which are gleaned from financial aid information, are likely to underestimate actual wealth because of the incentive to under-report.

Posted by: Daria Roithmayr | Apr 17, 2006 9:01:25 AM

Sorry... switch the words "background" and "transition" in the third-to-last sentence.

Posted by: B. Burgess | Apr 17, 2006 10:39:14 AM

When I was a law student (graduated '90) involved in advocating for a loan forgiveness program, I was told by someone in the law school administration that a substantial majority of Penn Law students did not take out educational loans. Someone was writing a check for tuition, then about $25,000 per year, plus paying living expenses, for three years in a row, without taking out any educational loans whatsoever, for over 70% of the student body. This suggested "affluence" to me!

Posted by: Ann Bartow | Apr 17, 2006 10:52:28 AM

The After the JD Project, which utilizes a sample of ~9,000 law school graduates who took the bar in 2000, documented a clear relationship between socioeconomic background of students and law school eliteness. It moves literally lockstep as you move up (or down) the USNWR hierarchy. (The AJD project is available here:

This development is far from new. In the 1960s, the American Bar Foundation, the Law School Admission Test Council (now the LSAC), and the US Dept of Education commissioned a study that, among other findings, documented similar stratification by class. See Seymour Warkov, Lawyers in the Making 53-56 (NORC 1965) (finding that students from more affluent families are much more likely to attend more elite law school as measured by median LSAT scores).

Insofar as law schools have become more LSAT-centric in their admission policies, there is a high probability that individual law schools have become more socioeconomically homogenous.

Posted by: William Henderson | Apr 18, 2006 9:27:48 AM

1) I was quite surprised by the number of students at my t20 (US News) school who went to private high schools. I never really thought class was important until I got to law school and saw the other half. I think about 75% of the general population attended a private high school, and quite a few of the rest attended magnet schools in large metro areas.
2) What's really striking to me is that, again based on nothing but my own experience, about the same proportion of black students are from private school backgrounds.
3) All you have to do to get need-financial aid is a) not be claimed as a dependent on anyone's tax return and b) not be making very much money. This is very easy to do. The percentage of students receiving need-based financial aid is a very poor proxy for class.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Apr 19, 2006 5:19:33 PM

If the trend at undergraduate institutions is indicative of what is occurring at professional schools, “Early Decision” could be one factor among many contributing to a lack of socio-economic diversity and increased homogeneity among student bodies.

In Jerome Karabel’s book “The Chosen” he talks about how the Early Decision process, while increasing admissions yields vis-à-vis their competitors, has taken its toll on socio-economic diversity at top institutions. Early Decision was discouraging applications from students with financial need and was biased toward those who could, either through family support or on their own, afford to wait out the few months between a decision and notification of a financial aid package in order to compare that package to fin. aid offers from other schools.

(Many top law schools have switched to Early Action as opposed to Early Decision although ED is still in place at some top schools like Chicago, Columbia, Michigan, and Northwestern.)

See also: Ruby Z. Afram’s article in the January 2006 Yale Law Journal

Posted by: John | Apr 20, 2006 4:06:55 PM

If only need-based financial aid were that easy! The private law schools I applied to expected financial information and a possible contribution from parents for all students under age 30 (even without having been a dependent for tax purposes). The apparent expectation about the kind of financial relationships students will have with their parents (even after graduation, work and nominal independence) struck me as having embedded assumptions about what socioeconomic background these students were coming from.

Posted by: random law student | Apr 20, 2006 8:39:17 PM

This is really too late to be part of this article, but it's worthy of note. Re: rich stay richer and the increasingly difficult to maintain myth of Horatio Alger.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Apr 26, 2006 9:00:42 PM

I came across this site while researching law school loans forgiveness programs. My daughter attented Loylola Marymount in CA and found what you wrote to be very true. In general the socio-economic class was of the more affluent. She attended law schools on loans only while working 35 hrs a week and still has a debt of $166,000. Meanwhile the majority of her friends there and other students encountered incurred no debt asw there families paid for this. She said there was a small amount of students who came from lower socio economic classes who qualified for various scholarship prgrams none of which were available to her due to not being a minority. In regard to her search for work she even had one of her professors ask her if her family had any legal connections because that is what really helped. Her cousin attented Columbia University and found the same situation. It seems as a lay person from the outside that the law profession is pretty tied up in that way. And by the way does anyone have any law school loan forgiveness prgram information they can pass my way?

Posted by: Leela Goldstein | Jun 5, 2006 3:16:42 AM

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