December 2021 / Episode 4 / Under 30 minutes
A Look at the Historic 2021 Incoming Class
Welcome to the Keeping Up to DataSM podcast, a new space in which we discuss, analyze, and contextualize trends and perspectives in the current law school admission cycle by taking a deeper dive into the most up-to-date data and making sense of the complicated world of legal education.
SUSAN KRINSKY: Welcome back to Keeping Up to DataSM. I'm Susan Krinsky, LSAC's executive vice president for operations and chief of staff. This month, we're focusing on the recently completed 2021 admission cycle, a cycle described by others as "amazing," "unexpected," and "supercharged." But first, a few notes on the current cycle.
As of December 15, volumes are tracking very close to last year's and significantly higher than two years ago. At about 40% of the way through the application cycle, we are seeing 1,443 fewer applicants, and that's on a base of about 28,000 total applicants so far. Of course, that's still about 9,000 more applicants than we had at this time in 2019. More on this later.
I'm excited to be joined today by Jorge Garcia, assistant dean of admissions, financial aid, and campus diversity at California Western School of Law in San Diego. Dean Garcia will talk with us today about his reactions to the newly released Standard 509 data and how we got here.
Each fall, LSAC works with the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar and law schools across the United States to compile and certify the accuracy of certain enrollment data for the incoming class of law students. Known as the Standard 509 data, referencing the accreditation standard that requires law schools to accurately disclose and publish certain data, this data has just been released on the website of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. You can view this data at abarequireddisclosures.org , both in aggregate and for each individual law school. Overall, it's a treasure trove of rich data: the number of students at each school; full- and part-time status; racial, ethnic, and gender information; LSAT score and undergraduate GPA data for each law school; and more. I'll provide a few of my top takeaways and will ask Dean Garcia to provide his reactions and some context.
My top takeaway when I look at the data is that the incoming class of 2021 is the most racially diverse class in history. Nearly 35% of the 2021 incoming class are students of color, up from 34% in 2020 and 33% in 2019. Black/African-American students comprised 10% of 2021 matriculants, up a bit from 2020 and 2019. Hispanic/Latinx students make up 12.3% of this year's incoming class, compared to comparable numbers in 2020 and a good deal higher than 2019. This is particularly impressive given the global COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic impacts, both of which had disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Dean Garcia, your school saw a significant increase in diversity; can you talk about why that was important to you and what steps you took to try to expand access?
DEAN JORGE GARCIA: Good morning, Susan. Thank you for having me here. I think that the expansion of the applicant pool this past year presented a lot of opportunities with regard to the diversity of the applicant pool as a whole. We received very strong candidates within our pool that came from very diverse backgrounds: everything from socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as racial and gender backgrounds. So, this expanded pool allowed us to tailor the entering class in a manner that aligns with our mission statement, which is to provide educational opportunities to communities that are historically underrepresented.
SUSAN: I note that 2021 also has the highest proportion of women. About 56% of incoming students are women, an increase of nearly 2% over 2020. For comparison, as recently as 2015, men comprised more than half of incoming students, but the proportion of women has increased steadily over the past five years. Have you seen something similar?
DEAN GARCIA: So, interestingly enough, our experience—and my experience is having worked in two law schools in Southern California, so it's not exclusive to my current law school—but we have actually seen, or I have actually seen, a higher rate of matriculants being female over the last five years. Now, I don't know whether it is our location that is more attractive to females than it is to males, [but] our applicant pool has consistently been with females being [around] 58-60% of the pool. So that translates into a matriculant group that is generally [more] females.
SUSAN: What do you think that says about the legal profession as a whole going forward? I mean, currently, women are still underrepresented in the profession, and particularly among the judiciary and the senior private-sector roles.
DEAN GARCIA: Well, I think that our continued goal of admitting balanced student bodies, where females do represent an equal or larger portion of the applicant pool, should hopefully help remedy some of these disparities. It takes time for a young associate to move up the ranks and hopefully eventually make partner or go into the judiciary. But from where I stand, we can expand the pipeline to be able to provide those opportunities to women who want to study law.
SUSAN: I would note that we are seeing more women become law school deans and many more women of color becoming law school deans, which is a very exciting development. On the gender front, we're also seeing a steady increase in the number of applicants who identify as non-binary or who decline to state their gender.
DEAN GARCIA: Yes, and I think this is thanks to LSAC's ability and willingness to allow for that question to not just be a binary question, to where there are other options. We are able to now capture a broader set of answers. Unfortunately, some law schools still hold or operate under student management systems that are still binary, so the ability to transfer this information that comes through the application into a student management system, it's just ... we haven't caught up to that yet, but we are working on it.
SUSAN: Really good point. It's such rich data.
DEAN GARCIA: It is. It is.
SUSAN: My second takeaway, not surprisingly, is that the incoming class of 2021 is the largest class in almost a decade. We all remember that there was a significant increase in applicants for the 2021 incoming class. Applicants were up 12.6% overall, with strong growth across nearly every racial and ethnic group. This year, law schools enrolled over 41,000 first-year students, representing a 9.3% increase over the 2020 incoming class. One hundred forty-eight schools increased their class sizes, 45 decreased, and three were unchanged compared to 2020. Dean Garcia, how did you handle the increase in applicants?
DEAN GARCIA: Here at California Western, the decision was made to hold the size of the entering class equal to the prior year. That was a strategic decision from the administration and the dean, and I was coming into this job right around the time when those decisions were being made. I have to assume that placement was a factor in ensuring that we continue to work and strengthen those figures.
With regard to the applicant pool, it was just a matter of weeding through additional applications, many of them very qualified, and making those hard decisions that every school has to make, where you have way too many strong candidates and unfortunately were only able to admit a percentage of them. As previously mentioned, our decision to focus on diversity was a major factor, but that's a good problem to have.
SUSAN: It is. You mentioned concerns about employment; could you talk a bit more about how that drove the decision to maintain class size?
DEAN GARCIA: So, my understanding is the legal market is expanding at this point, but it contracted for many, many years, and the importance of ensuring that the number of graduates don't outnumber the number of positions available is very important. Many schools are working toward strengthening employment statistics, making sure that the students who are graduating have an opportunity to gain these job opportunities. There are schools that chose to, whether planned or unplanned, grow their entering classes, and I can only imagine in three years, career services will have their job cut out for them to find these additional positions. Hopefully, the job market will continue to grow so these jobs will be easily achieved.
SUSAN: As you went through the application season last year, and of course it was a very different season because there wasn't a lot of in-person recruiting, what were you hearing from applicants about why they were applying? Was there anything that you heard that would explain the dramatic increase?
DEAN GARCIA: That's a difficult question to answer, because initially, I think most of us were surprised at the growth. I do know that racial justice movements impacted that, and I can only assume that the increase in diversity within the pool factored into that.
I think that COVID also factored into this. The fact that the economy shut down and recent graduates were not able to find a position played a part into them choosing to pursue a higher education. This is not unusual: Usually, a recession will be followed by an increase in applications to graduate programs. While this was not necessarily a recession, it did experience a dramatic decline in employment, and I can only assume that that factored into many of the applicants choosing to pursue a legal education.
SUSAN: My third takeaway from the data that we're seeing is that this incoming class is one of the most highly skilled classes in recent memory. Average GPA was up 0.05 points, and average LSAT score was up just over 1 point. Overall, 159 schools reported an increase in the median GPA for their incoming class, 25 schools reported a decrease, and 12 schools reported no change. Similarly, 167 schools reported an increase in median LSAT score, four schools reported a decrease, and 25 reported no change. Law schools, once again, used the LSAT as one factor in their admission process for over 98% of matriculants in 2021.
There are a lot of reasons why matriculant scores would have increased. More people took the LSATs, so, more high scores, more people applied, and those tend to be the individuals with higher scores. But we also learned through surveys that test takers spent significantly more time preparing due to the pandemic. On average, test takers spent 25-30% more time preparing, so that may also account for some of the higher scores.
Dean Garcia, what factors were most important to you as you evaluated this large number of candidates who were more highly qualified than we'd seen in a while?
DEAN GARCIA: Clearly, the academic indicators are always going to be important, but I think what the growth and the applicant pool did for us is allow us to dig much deeper into the application and look at what are called "soft factors." It's leadership opportunities, academic accomplishments, job experience, letters of recommendation. Everything that is not quantifiable became, now, the drivers, because the size of the applicant pool sort of evened out the indicator-set part of the application. So, we were able to dig in deeper into who the person was, and how did this person align to what we were looking for, when putting together our entering class.
SUSAN: We're not quite halfway through the current application season. Are you seeing similar things this year, and are you approaching it similarly this year?
DEAN GARCIA: The applicant pool, at least for us right now, is down slightly. It's still a larger group than two years ago. So, yes, I think that our approach continues to be very similar. We're still getting strong candidates. While the pool may be smaller, the quality of the pool continues to get stronger. So, we're having applicants that we want to admit all of them, and unfortunately, we have a capacity issue. We continue to look deep into the application and make sure that we account for everything that we can find out about the applicant, aside from just the numbers.
SUSAN: Are you able to see more candidates in person this year?
DEAN GARCIA: Unfortunately, not yet. With that said, we were able to participate in LSAC's in-person Forums, so we were glad that we were able to bring that back into our recruitment strategy. But the vast majority of all other recruitment events continue to be virtual, and it is because of COVID. It appears that we are starting to get over this, [but then] new variants come up, and that limits our ability to bring in large groups of applicants to our campus or for us to go and visit other programs. So, for the time being, we finished the cycle with virtual recruitment. The hope is that in the spring, we're in a position to be able to start bringing in small groups of applicants to our campus.
SUSAN: Is that more helpful to you, or more helpful to the applicant, to bring people on campus?
DEAN GARCIA: I think it's both. An applicant's ability to set foot in the law school is very important. I'm not the type of person who would buy a car just by looking at it on a video screen. I think that your ability to get a feel for what that place looks like, to feel the energy of the student body, is critical in selecting a program that fits you. On the other hand, as a recruiter and a person who admits candidates, we also have the ability to meet the person, understand what it is that they are looking for, and to be able to answer those questions in person and get a better feel how this person aligns with what it is that we do here and what we're looking for in a matriculant.
SUSAN: My fourth takeaway from the data that we're seeing is the critical importance of supporting candidates with technical and economic assistance. The pandemic shut down in-person testing. While we at LSAC were able to move to in-home LSAT testing very quickly for our candidates and schools, we recognized at the time that online testing had the potential to exacerbate problems of equity and access. Not everyone has access to a computer. Not everyone has access to a quiet place in which to take the test or to reliable internet service at home. From the very first online, remotely proctored LSAT, we provided a free loaner device to anyone who requested one, and we also provided hotel reimbursement for anyone who needed a quiet place to test or reliable internet.
The impact of this LSAC assistance is apparent when you look at the matriculant data that just came out. Nearly a thousand of these matriculants—990, to be exact—benefited from a free loaner device, from hotel reimbursement, or both. And the impact on diversity was significant. Of the matriculants who received assistance, over 57% were matriculants of color, including 211 Black/African-American candidates and 124 Hispanic/Latino candidates.
The matriculant data also underscore the importance of the LSAC fee waiver program. Over 1,900 matriculants—in fact, almost 2,000—benefited from LSAC's fee waiver program. Seventy-one percent are matriculants of color, including 560 Black/African-American matriculants and 351 Hispanic/Latinx matriculants.
Obviously, LSAC is not the only organization working to assist and support candidates. Schools and other organizations are working hard to support candidates as well, and there's obviously more to do. But these data underscore how important it is for the entire legal education ecosystem to understand the needs of prospective candidates and work together to address them.
Dean Garcia, as you talked with candidates last year and this year as well, are you finding the need for this kind of assistance helpful? Were we able to fill in some gaps?
DEAN GARCIA: I can tell you that actually, this week, I met a candidate, Latina, who benefited from the loaner program. She was able to borrow, for lack of a better term, borrow, I believe it was a tablet, from LSAC in order for her to be able to take the exam. She told me that without it, she wouldn't have been able to. So, I think clearly, LSAC's generosity in assisting students of limited resources contributes to the diversity of the applicant pool. So, yes, whether it be the loaners or the fee waiver program, it's critical in expanding the pipeline.
SUSAN: Right now, we have about 40% of the applicants we'll see for the 2022 cycle, at least compared to last year's timing, so the cycle is still not even halfway through, but all indications are that 2022 will be another strong cycle—obviously not the superheated, over-the-top applicant numbers we saw this past year, but pretty close to the 2021 cycle. And indications are that 2022 will be significantly higher than the previous plateaus of 2020, 2019 and 2018. In fact, applications received during the first week of December this year exceeded the number received during each of the previous four years, including last year. As of December 15, overall applicants for the 2022 cycle are down just under 5% compared to this time in 2021, but up 31% compared to 2020.
We're seeing a similar pattern for most racial and ethnic groups. Black/African-American applicants are down less than 2% from 2021 but up almost a third from 2020. Hispanic/Latinx applicants are up a little over 3% from this time last year and up, again, almost a third from 2020. What are you seeing now that we are 40% into the admission cycle, and are you doing anything new or different this year?
DEAN GARCIA: We are continuing to see a very diverse applicant pool. Again, going back to our location, California is a very diverse state, so the composition of the applicant pool may be different from other parts of the country. We continue to see a large portion of our applicant pool identifying as Latinx, and we continue to have the same quantity of Black and African-American applicants in our pool. So, our approach will be very similar to what we did last year, and the hope is, at a minimum, maintain our diversity numbers, but hopefully improve upon them.
SUSAN: Do you have any special advice for candidates this year? Certainly in the context of lots of competition, but also in the context of less in-person recruiting—candidates who may not actually be able to talk in person with a recruiter or see a school in person.
DEAN GARCIA: Although people are generally not able to visit in person, they still have the ability to meet virtually. That is one thing that came out of this unfortunate pandemic. I am able to meet with somebody from Northern California, and half an hour later, I'm speaking with somebody from New York. So, I believe that most of my colleagues are making ourselves available to still speak and meet virtually with candidates.
I think another opportunity this creates is for candidates to be able to request to speak with current students, through Zoom or some other means, to speak with somebody who's actually there, who's going through the program, and get that input as to what is it like to be there. It's not going to replace the actual in-person visit, but I think it's a reasonable alternative.
SUSAN: How would you answer the perennial question from applicants: "How do I set myself apart? How do I convey to you that I am a student you want at your school?"
DEAN GARCIA: That's a really good question. It's a question we often get when discussing the personal statement. I think that applicants don't understand how we use the personal statement. We're trying to get to know the person. It's not an exercise in creative writing. We want to get to know who this person is—not by looking at their LSAT or GPA, but what makes them different, and that can only be explained through that personal statement. So, I always advise students to approach it as some form of an interview—to tell us about qualities or characteristics that they feel could potentially make them an individual. That's the best approach.
Everybody's different, and that in itself makes ... everybody sets themselves apart. We just want an honest personal statement. That would be my advice.
SUSAN: Thank you, Dean Garcia. It has been my delight to have you with me today, and I thank you for all of your insight.
DEAN GARCIA: Well, thank you, Susan. I, again, want to thank LSAC for the good work that they are doing in supporting diverse students, students who are first-gen. It's critical that we continue to pursue the enhancement of the applicant pool. And the hope is that one point, as you mentioned, the legal practice and the judiciary will reflect what our population is.
SUSAN: Thank you. To our listeners, thank you for joining us at Keeping Up to DataSM. We look forward to your joining our next episode, when we will continue to take a close look at the data from the current admission cycle. Until next time, stay well and my very best wishes for the new year.
Thank you for joining us. Keeping Up to DataSM is a production of LSAC. If you want to learn more about the current law school admission cycle and the latest trends and news, visit us at LSAC.org.