Group of diverse students gathered together smiling

Where They Live and Learn: Environmental Context as a Guide in Assessing Potential

By Elizabeth Bodamer

To say that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the use of race in college admissions has lit a fire under what already was a hot-button topic is an understatement. The Supreme Court’s decision has laid the foundation for an additional layer of uncertainty and complexity in the admission decision-making progress.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor reminds us that “the pursuit of racial diversity will go on. Although the court has stripped out almost all uses of race in college admissions, universities can and should continue to use all available tools to meet society’s needs for diversity in education.”

It is well-known that inequities in the education systems across the country have a direct impact on students’ preparation for college. Access to resources and learning opportunities are not equal for all. Early education is often poorly resourced in marginalized communities, limiting opportunities for students to develop the skills they need to succeed in college and beyond. Where students live and where they learn impact their education outcomes. In short, environmental context matters.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement External link opens in new browser window to colleges and universities in the United States to promote educational opportunity and diversity. As part of that guidance, the USDOE urged admission offices to “give serious consideration to adversities students have overcome” as they pursue their higher education goals. Information about the environmental context that shape a student’s academic and non-academic portfolio may appear in personal statements or recommendations, but such information may be incomplete and inconsistently available across applicants from different communities.

The College Board’s innovative research into environmental context External link opens in new browser window in college admissions has yielded promising results which are being used by colleges and universities. Based on the College Board’s research External link opens in new browser window, the introduction of environmental context information in the college admissions process increased admission among applicants from challenging neighborhood and high school environments.

LSAC is excited, and proud, to join the College Board in a new research project aimed at exploring relevant environmental context factors for law school/graduate admission and how to operationalize the research to inform the possible development of an additional graduate admission tool. At the core of this collaboration is equity and leveraging data to help open opportunities to the next generation of diverse and innovative leaders.

The focus of the collaboration between LSAC and the College Board is to empirically validate and assess the general socio-educational-cultural environment in which students live and learn. Where that student lives and learns can impact a number of areas including: 1) educational preparation and attainment (including standardized tests), 2) the opportunity to demonstrate non-academic factors and personal qualities, such as leadership, civic commitment, and extracurricular engagement, and 3) the social support system necessary to navigate a complex and expensive educational system and prepare oneself to stand out in a competitive selection environment.

The applied knowledge from this research during the admission process is an important, and even crucial, component of the holistic admission review. Considering the whole person goes beyond superficial attributes such as their grades, standardized test scores, and personal achievements. It requires evaluating what a student has obtained in the context of the advantages and barriers they have experienced along the way. It is about assessing the relationships between environment, opportunity, achievement, and potential. Let’s be clear that the focus of this research is not the student. The research aims to focus on factors that shape the student to inform admission professionals about the whole person. This research intends to contextualize real-life experiences, real-life success, and most importantly, real-life potential, so that a true picture of the complete student can come into focus.

As LSAC and the College Board start this important research, I am reminded of my younger self, a daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, who at a young age started translating between Spanish and English to advocate on behalf of her parents. I think of my walks to school, late nights studying in a bedroom that barely fit a desk and a twin bed. My mother’s words echo louder these days as I reflect on the Supreme Court’s decision, “I clean toilets, so you don’t have to.” As Justice Sotomayor said, we must “use all available tools to meet society’s needs for diversity in education.”

And so, as we use our tools—research and data—we must keep in mind that behind each data point are people. People with dreams, families, and stories. People from diverse backgrounds who can help transform our legal system for the better—if only we can open opportunities for legal education through a more holistic admission process.

Elizabeth Bodamer

Director of Research

Elizabeth Bodamer (she/her/ella) has a PhD in Sociology from Indiana University Bloomington and a JD from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.