The Impact of GPA-First Admission Policies

In this brief, we examine two aspects of the enrollment pipeline to law school using LSAC applicant and matriculant data. In the first analysis, we explore the consequences of a hypothetical scenario in which GPA alone is used in the first step of the admission process to select students for further review. By not using the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) in admission decisions, we found that a number of well-qualified students with lower undergraduate GPAs would be shut out of law school. In the second analysis, using actual matriculant data, we calculate the number of applicants by race and ethnicity who were accepted by at least one law school but did not matriculate. These results indicate that using a GPA cutoff as a first step in evaluating candidates may shut out some promising students, and that other students who have been accepted but decide against matriculation may do so as a consequence of economic and social barriers. These two analyses are followed by a brief discussion of why the evaluation of developed skills is a useful component of a holistic admission model.

I. Using a GPA-First Admission Policy

We first studied a hypothetical scenario in which a hard GPA cutoff was used in the first step of the admission process to select students for further review, and students below this cutoff would be excluded from further consideration. For the purpose of this thought experiment, we did not consider whether students were actually accepted. Two hypothetical GPA cutoffs were examined: 2.5 and 3.0. Using these cutoffs, we then examined the percentage of LSAT takers who would be excluded from consideration for admission under a GPA-first policy. We ran this analysis separately for five subgroups: Black/African American (BA), Caucasian/White (CW), Asian (AS), Hispanic/Latino (HS), and American Indian/Native American (AI).

The results for all students who applied to law school in 2018 and 2019 are given in Table 1. Table 1A shows results for all applicants with an LSAT score in the range of 151-160. Table 1B shows parallel results for all applicants with an LSAT score in the range of 161-180. For each demographic subgroup of applicants, we then obtained the percentage (in each score range) of applicants who would be excluded from further consideration in the application process with a hypothetical GPA cutoff of 2.5 or 3.0. The frequencies of excluded applicants are given in Table 2.

For the purpose of interpretation, consider the column in Table 1A under the heading BA. It can be observed that 27.4% of Black/African American applicants who had LSAT scores in the range of 151-160 would be excluded from admission by a GPA cutoff of 3.0. Likewise, 14.2% of Black/African American students who had LSAT scores in the range of 161-180 would be excluded from admission by a GPA cutoff of 3.0.

Table 1. Percentage of Excluded Applicants Based on Data from the LSAC Applicant Database

A. Percentage of Excluded Students with an LSAT Score of 151-160: Academic Years 2018-2019

GPA Cutoff

BA

CW

AS

HS

AI

2.5

7.7%

3.5%

4.4%

4.4%

5.7%

3.0

27.4%

17.2%

21.1%

21.1%

25.6%

B. Percentage of Excluded Students with an LSAT Score of 161-180: Academic Years 2018-2019

GPA Cutoff

BA

CW

AS

HS

AI

2.5

2.4%

1.4%

1.3%

1.3%

2.7%

3.0

14.2%

7.3%

7.5%

9.5%

12.2%

BA = Black/African American; CW = Caucasian/White; AS = Asian; HS = Hispanic/Latino;
AI = American Indian/Native American.

Table 2 provides the same information given in Table 1, but in terms of frequencies rather than percentages. It is evident that a substantial number of high-capacity students would be excluded by a GPA-first admission process. For example, of all Black/African American students with LSAT scores in the 151-160 range, 986 would be excluded using a 3.0 cutoff for GPA; in addition, 129 who scored in the 161-180 range would be excluded with a GPA cutoff of 3.0.

Table 2. Frequency of Excluded Applicants Based on Data from the LSAC Applicant Database

A. Number of Excluded Students with an LSAT Score of 151-160: Academic Years 2018-2019

GPA Cutoff

BA

CW

AS

HS

AI

Total

2.5

275

1,100

172

271

54

1,872

3.0

986

5,490

824

1,302

243

88,945

B. Number of Excluded Students with an LSAT Score of 161-180: Academic Years 2018-2019

GPA Cutoff

BA

CW

AS

HS

AI

Total

2.5

22

292

55

27

8

404

3.0

129

1,515

313

203

36

2,196

BA = Black/African American; CW = Caucasian/White; AS = Asian; HS = Hispanic/Latino;
AI = American Indian/Native American.

A GPA-first policy would thus decrease law school access for students who are likely to be successful in first-year courses across all race and ethnicity subgroups.

II. Nonmatriculating Students

A number of test takers applied and were offered admission at one or more law schools but did not matriculate in either 2018 or 2019. As shown in Table 3, these students represent all races and ethnicities.

Table 3. Students Who Applied But Did Not Matriculate by Demographic Subgroup

 

BA

CW

AS

HS

AI

Percentage

15.7%

13.2%

18.7%

14.8%

14.6%

Frequency

1,319

8,027

1,751

1,591

247

Note. These percentages and frequencies span from 2018 to 2019.

BA = Black/African American; CW = Caucasian/White; AS = Asian; HS = Hispanic/Latino; AI = American Indian/Native American.

Reasons for nonmatriculation may include, inter alia, deferring for a year or longer, lack of financial support, internship offers, and family obligations. These frequencies are slightly affected by deferrals, which typically range from 2% to 4% of matriculating classes — though deferral rates have recently increased.

III. Holistic Evaluation

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court found:

Focusing on students academic ability coupled with a flexible assessment of their talents, experiences, and potential, the policy requires admissions officials to evaluate each applicant based on all the information available in the file, including a personal statement, letters of recommendation, an essay describing how the applicant will contribute to Law School life and diversity, and the applicants undergraduate grade point average (GPA) and Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score.[1]

However, there are different approaches to “holistic evaluation” or “flexible assessment.” For example, a single judgment may be determined qualitatively after examining a set of quantitative and qualitative indicators.[2] Another possible approach is first to calculate an applicant’s likelihood of success with a prediction formula, and then to update this prediction in relation to information that is difficult to quantify in order to arrive at a final judgment. In general, holistic review procedures should be consistent with the principles of best practice, but at the same time tailored to address the mission of a school and its corresponding admission policies.[3]

Admission committees typically consider an applicant’s academic strength and potential based on a set of information that may include (but is not limited to) undergraduate GPA, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, academic awards, and portfolios. Race and ethnicity, which applicants may or may not choose to reveal, are relevant to creating effective social and intellectual learning environments. Race-conscious admission practices have been accepted by the courts insofar as institutions demonstrate that their interest in student-body diversity is driven by their mission. In holistic evaluation, nonquantifiable factors can be considered within a framework of multiple indicators, including measures of qualification for studying law that are consistent with an institutional mission.

ABA Standard 501(a) stipulates: “A law school shall only admit applicants who appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.” This suggests that a preadmission evaluation of skills is necessary; this is confirmed by Standard 503, which requires the use of an admission test. Beyond ABA accreditation standards, however, a GPA-first admission policy would defeat, in principle, the mandate of holistic evaluation in Grutter because admission procedures could not take into account all relevant skills required for success in law school. Moreover, the principle that multiple indicators of qualification should be considered would be violated by an admission policy in which only students with GPAs above a designated threshold — or even a certain test score threshold — were selected for further review.

IV. Summary

The move to a GPA-first admission policy would decrease law school access across all race and ethnicity subgroups for well-qualified individuals with lower undergraduate GPAs possibly due to factors such as choice of college major or obligations outside of school. The bottom line is that holistic evaluation by admission staff would not be feasible without consideration of a measurement of developed intellectual ability linked specifically to success in law school.

A separate issue is that many well-qualified students who apply to law school, and are accepted, do not matriculate. This demonstrates that individuals are not shut out of law school solely on the basis of LSAT scores. Instead, there are other potential barriers, including lack of financial resources, unwillingness to accept a substantial debt load, family or work obligations, and acceptance at a nonpreferred law school. This is true across all race and ethnicity subgroups.

Finally, the question arises as to whether there is evidence that a GPA-first admission policy would have a disparate impact across race and ethnicity subgroups. In Table 1, there is some indication that this would be a foreseeable outcome, especially for Black/African American and American Indian/Native American students. However, our data demonstrate that qualified students of all races and ethnicities would be shut out of law school if LSAT scores were not factored into admission policies.


[1] Syllabus of majority decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 328 (2003). The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is also accepted by a number of law schools.

[2] Arkes, H., & Dent, G. W., Jr. (2019). Holistic review in race-conscious university admissions. Faculty Publications. 2039. https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/faculty_publications/2039

[3] See Camara, W., & Knezevich, L. Using LSAT Scores in Holistic Admissions: Best Practices.

admission professional takes notes at a laptop

Additional reports in this collection