Legal education has been ground zero for practically all of the major challenges facing higher education: rising tuition, rising student debt, a contracted job market, and resulting questions about the utility and value of the degree. Unsurprisingly, there has been a steady drumbeat of bad publicity that has exposed the sausage-making side of law schools to unprecedented scrutiny.
As a result, applications are down more than a third in just three years. First-year enrollments are at their lowest levels in almost 40 years and down 24 percent since the record high just three years ago. Moreover, declining Law School Admission Test registrations, a proverbial canary, suggest those enrollment trends have yet to bottom out.
That has led colleges to lay off faculty and staff members and to revisit pricing strategies; a few have even gone as far as lowering tuition to attract more students—an unthinkable move during the boom. But lost in the din of negativity is a milestone that deserves cautious celebration: Law schools, as a whole, are more racially and ethnically diverse than ever.
Readers of ITLSS may remember Aaron Taylor as the law professor who promotes the quasi-bankruptcy provisions of federal loan programs as “back end scholarships.”
Now he’s back, celebrating increasing law school “diversity” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Translation: Members of demographic groups possessing on average high amounts of financial and cultural capital, and the social options such capital enables, are fleeing law school in droves, and are being replaced by members of demographic groups with less capital and fewer options. (Median household income among Asian Americans is 34% higher than among Americans overall, and 21% higher than that of white Americans, and I am disaggregating the data on minority enrollment to reflect this).
Indeed the relevant numbers are a good deal more striking (or starker, depending on one’s perspective) than Taylor’s analysis reveals.
In 2009-10 whites and Asian-Americans made up 43,546 of that year’s entering ABA law school class.
This past fall these groups sent approximately 30,375 matriculants to law school — a decline of 30.2%.
Meanwhile, while 8,101 members of ethnic minority groups (excluding Asian-Americans) enrolled in ABA law schools in 2009-10, approximately 9,300 members of these groups matriculated in the fall of 2013 — a 14.8% increase.
Highly qualified minority applicants are in great demand at elite law schools, and the proportion of minority matriculants at such schools has remained stable.
What appears to be happening is that sub-elite law schools, and in particular low-ranked law schools, are selling (quite literally) the social cachet traditionally associated with the legal profession to members of traditionally marginalized groups. The historical fact that members of such groups, and in particular young people in these groups, are especially vulnerable to exploitation by powerful social actors ought to raise a red flag for anyone considering the meaning of these statistics.