August 2023 / Episode 8 / Under 20 minutes
The Court’s Decision on Race in Admissions
Welcome to the Keeping Up to DataSM podcast, a 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 Data. I’m Susan Krinsky, LSAC’s executive vice president for operations and chief of staff. We’re now at the point at which we have pretty close to 100% of the applicants and applications that we will see for the 2023 admission cycle. We are seeing just under 61,000 applicants, 1.9% fewer applicants than last year at this time. And we have 415,700 applications, or 3.1% fewer than last year. And as we pointed out in last month’s podcast, when we look at the four years prior to this one, we’re at very close to the same number of applicants as in 2019, 2020, and 2022. The outlier year, of course, is 2021, when we saw almost 10,000 more applicants than this year. Similarly, with respect to applications, 2021 was the year with the big bump. This year, we actually have about 40,000 more applications than we did in 2019 and 2020, though fewer than in 2022.
Continuing a positive trend, this year’s applicant pool includes 46.8% applicants of color. With respect to gender, this year’s applicant pool has a clear majority of women, 56.6%, and the number and percentage of applicants identifying as gender diverse has more than doubled since 2019. As of this week, 30.9% of applicants have indicated that they are first-generation college students.
There is also some interesting news on test takers and test registrants. The June LSAT® administration had over 2,000 more test takers than was the case in June 2022, and two-thirds were first-time test takers. Registration for the August test is about 1,000 individuals ahead of last year, and we’re about three weeks prior to the start of the test administration. With several days to go before the registration deadline for the September LSAT, we’re also slightly ahead of last year.
On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and that schools could not consider racial status as a part of their admission decisions. The court did, however, indicate that there are ways in which schools could consider, and this is in quotes, “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life.” Naturally, the court’s decision creates significant uncertainty and challenges for schools and admission leaders. And as is generally the case in these situations, each school will of course have to craft its own response based on its own unique mission and working closely with their own counsel.
Importantly, LSAC is committed to providing tools and resources to help schools navigate this challenging ruling. With me today to discuss the road ahead for schools are two LSAC leaders who have a great deal of insight into the issues facing admission teams. Jay Austin is executive director of LSAC’s RISE Alliance™. Previously, Jay served in senior admission roles at several law schools, including Rutgers; UC Irvine; Penn State; the University of Pennsylvania; the school formerly known as the University of California, Hastings School of Law; and Columbia Law School, as well as the Columbia University School of Business. Jay is active with a wide range of affinity organizations across our member schools.
Gisele Joachim is LSAC’s vice president for law school engagement. Before joining LSAC, she served as the dean of enrollment management at Seton Hall University School of Law, where during her 15-year tenure she oversaw admissions and financial aid. Previously, Gisele served at various undergraduate institutions overseeing financial aid and at the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, assisting schools in running their financial aid programs effectively and compliantly. During her tenure at Seton Hall, Gisele was very active with LSAC, including service on the board of trustees.
So, let me start with a question to Jay. It’s a short one. What are we hearing from admission leaders?
JAY AUSTIN: Thank you, Susan. Great question. Before I dive into what I know I’m hearing from our leaders, let me just say a little bit about the general impact. We know that there is going to be some level of impact on what the demographics are in the classroom, but there’s also a greater implication: the impact of what it means to professionals, particularly admissions professionals who’ve been doing this work for decades—in some cases, generations. To have the highest court in the land overturn 45 years of precedent and say that schools cannot take race into account, despite the deep racial inequities that exist throughout this country and our society, and despite generations of trauma endured by not only many people of color, but particularly by African-Americans and Black people, it is a deeply painful moment for many of our colleagues and particularly people in this country.
So, when I talk to schools, I hear many things, but two in particular, and I use the word “frustration” and the word “rage.” And the rage really is a guttural reaction to the court’s decision, even though there was some level of anticipation. And the frustration is because for so long, many schools and jurisdictions have used race-conscious admissions in a very holistic way where it was permitted by law, and we saw the outcomes of what those classrooms still looked like. They were nowhere near reflective of our society in terms of the demographics of society. So, that level of frustration exists, but I think it’s also compelling schools to be more resolved in their thinking and their commitment to this work and how to bring in innovative steps, and to really let this be an inflection point of how we move forward for the next two generations in terms of law school enrollment and classes.
SUSAN: Thank you. Moving now to Gisele. Gisele, tell us what LSAC has been doing to help schools get ready for this moment.
GISELE JOACHIM: Thanks, Susan. Before I answer that question, I just wanted to add on to what Jay has said with one more thing that I’ve been hearing from admissions leaders, and that is that this needs to be a whole-school engagement. This isn’t just an admissions challenge. And so, I think it’s really important that when we at LSAC are assisting our member schools and when we’re listening to them and when we’re talking to other leaders at those schools, that folks remember that.
Having said that, LSAC has been working for the past year or more to help schools prepare. We obviously didn’t know exactly how the court was going to rule, but we had a sense of it, as did most people, I believe. We knew where the broad direction of the court was headed, and we did a number of things to help prepare for that. And all of this work is ongoing. First and foremost, we’ve created a comprehensive resource website for schools. It’s called “The Future of Law School Admission,” and it is exclusively for our law school members. The site has a broad array of tools and information for schools, kind of a one-stop shop for schools to get information, to get content, resources, tools, and insights. And it helps to explore the decision not only on its own, but in light of other admissions changes that we see coming at us. These challenges, such as artificial intelligence and other challenges to the admissions field, it’s all housed under that site.
We’ve had multiple webinars that are very hands-on in terms of the information we’re providing over the last six months, and all of these webinars have been recorded and summarized and are available on that same website. We also recently convened a half-day workshop for schools with a panel of experts to help understand the court’s ruling in general and to give more detailed information and assistance in helping schools think about the next steps. We’ve provided a detailed, step-by-step instruction primer on how schools may want to adjust the content of their applications in the wake of the decision and how schools may want to adjust how they handle demographic data within their admission systems and processes like evaluation and review. And we will continue to provide this kind of support.
SUSAN: Thank you. And as a follow-up question, Gisele, what should schools be thinking about regarding their applications and data collection activities? Are there other tools, race-neutral tools, that could help schools to identify students who have overcome adversity?
GISELE: Schools are definitely still digesting and analyzing the court’s decision to understand how they should proceed. And it is especially difficult in light of the fact that there has been no guidance from the Department of Education. And so, it’s very hard for the schools to make decisions for the general counsels at the individual schools to know how really to direct folks.
Having said that, we know that our schools are committed to understanding and abiding by the court’s decision, and they are committed to continuing to pursue their missions, which often include advancing diversity, equity, and access to legal education. And we are here to assist them. The court has ruled that schools cannot consider race as race—essentially, it can’t be considered as a checkbox on an application in the admission decision. But the court has explicitly said that schools may consider information from individual candidates about how race affects their lives, either through overcoming adversity related to race or through inspiration and perspective related to their racial identity. So, I would expect to see a number of schools building out ways to get that kind of insight from the individual applicants.
In addition, there are a number of dimensions to equity, access, and diversity, and there are a number of race-neutral ways to identify students that have faced unique challenges. Some examples of this include asking students if they were first-generation college students, first-generation law students. Did they receive a Pell Grant while they were an undergraduate student? Did they participate in any prelaw or pipeline programs? We know that these kinds of questions can help us to further diversify and create access for the law students without being a race-based question. LSAC will provide tools and resources for schools that want to identify students who have overcome these kinds of challenges. And we’ve already made a lot of those tools available. And LSAC is 100% committed to helping all individuals access legal education and to expanding the profession.
SUSAN: Thank you, Gisele. And now, moving back to Jay. Jay, there are multiple states that had already passed laws prohibiting race-conscious admission, some quite a few years ago, such as California, Michigan, Washington, and Texas. We know from history in those states that often there was an immediate drop in diversity, but that in many, but not all, cases, schools were able to find new ways to recruit students from underrepresented minoritized communities. What can we learn from schools that are already operating under these kinds of restrictions and have been for some time?
JAY: Sure. First, let me say, I’ve been in this business for so long, I firmly believe every challenge is an opportunity. And with that, LSAC has been and will continue to be right there, shoulder to shoulder, with all of our member schools as they build out new opportunities to pivot around and move forward in terms of diversity and what it means in the classroom.
In terms of the impact, we know that there clearly is a disparity in inequities in higher education and who has access to higher education in this country. But over time, we have seen member schools in many of those states that you mentioned, Susan, make deep investments into pipeline programs and other race-neutral initiatives that have helped to advance access and diversity over time. But as Gisele mentioned, it can’t be just the responsibility of admissions. I mean, this is really a time for leadership, and leadership in our academic institutions begins with the president, the chancellor’s office, and all the way down to the law school community.
Leaders need to invest in ways that improve and increase human capacity—staffing, perhaps—and also budgetary requirements to assist with the development of programs. Those all are critical. Again, what Gisele said, it really is a time for all hands on deck to be able to do this work. And you can’t leave the responsibility solely on the law schools. It’s a moment for the entire legal ecosystem to step up to help. That means the judiciary, the law firms, in-house counsel, alumni, and literally everyone to be active in this new task.
Finally, I think schools have to take the position they cannot be risk-adverse. No school is going to make themselves litigation-proof, but to be able to think more wholly about really what it means to be a leader in this moment, with race-conscious admissions not necessarily something you can use, but still being careful about crafting a class and using all the tools and services that LSAC and other organizations provide.
SUSAN: Gisele and Jay, thank you for being here today. That’s about it for today. Thank you for joining me at Keeping Up to Data. We look forward to seeing you next time, when we will continue to take a close look at the data from the 2023 admission cycle. Until next time, stay well.
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.