According to a new study by UCLA law professor Richard Sander, discussed in an article in the Denver University Law Review, “the vast majority of American law students come from relatively elite backgrounds; this is especially true at the most prestigious law schools, where only five percent of all students come from families whose SES [socioeconomic status] is in the bottom half of the national distribution.”
In other breaking news, studies show that the vast majority of people who get into water emerge wet.
It’s beyond obvious that American law schools favor the elite. Talent will take you far, but having a financially sound family will take you farther. Professor Sander — whose prior research on law school prestige generated lots of buzz last year — argues that schools should use socioeconomic factors as a partial substitute for racial preferences.
Well, that’s a false choice if I ever heard one. Why can’t we have both socioeconomic and race-based affirmative action? Look, you can accuse me of playing the “race card” if you want to, but I’m just trying to figure out a way to help white people get into law school….
UCLA School of Law turned to socioeconomic affirmative action beginning in  when it was banned from using race-based affirmative action by voter initiative, Sander says. The socioeconomic program produced a class that was more than a third nonwhite, though a majority of the nonwhites were Asians. The 1997 admittees went on to achieve the highest bar passage rate in the school’s history.
The grim reality (for people who generally hate affirmative action) is that if we admitted people to law school based solely on standardized test scores, law schools would have a lot more Asians, many Jews, and some foreign-born students. There would be a few white male Protestants and a couple of blacks sitting there saying “American New Year’s Eve” as they try to distinguish their minority celebration.
White males need all sorts of help to get into law school. Richard Sander highlights these factors:
Schools also could be, in effect, giving preferences to those in higher socioeconomic classes with three policies:
• Giving legacy preferences.
• Failing to take into account that grade point averages at private colleges are more likely to be inflated than those at public universities.
• Favoring students with “interesting” records. Students who took a year off from college to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, or who nearly qualified for the Olympic ski team, are much less likely to come from lower-income backgrounds, he says.
One of the white kids from my high school got into Harvard College largely on the strength of his skills as a pianist, an instrument out of reach for many minority students also looking to gain admission.
But not me.
That’s really the problem with looking at only racial factors when determining “diversity” for admissions. Yes, race plays a role. But if you look at a kid like me, I was born into a two-parent home, with college-educated parents. I went to private schools and had access to the best test prep courses anybody could need. Based on my standardized test scores, I didn’t need affirmative action help to me get into the schools that I got into. I do think a diverse class should admit African-Americans from different socioeconomic backgrounds (I wouldn’t think that a class made up of exclusively rich white kids and poor minorities would be a great thing), but Harvard shouldn’t be able to go around and admit all the middle-class black kids from Long Island and count it as “diversity outreach.”
I lived on the economically sound North Shore of Long Island when I was in high school. When I was in grade school, I lived on the more economically depressed South Shore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the South Shore of Long Island to the hills of West Virginia, but growing up there I knew a lot of poor white people who didn’t have my economic advantages. Some of them were smart kids, but at the point where I was getting out of my crappy public school to do things that would help my education, I had friends of all colors who were stuck behind.
Shouldn’t those kids get some extra consideration when it comes to admission to college or law school? Would it be such a big deal if the kid who grew up in disadvantaged circumstances but fights his way to a 165 on the LSAT gets at least as much consideration as the kid who had every opportunity and cruises to a 170?
Look, I value diversity in an educational environment. I think that schools should be a place where the rich kid and the poor kid and the black kid and the whatever-the-hell-race-Jessica-Alba-is kid can all go to school and learn from each other. I think that kind of environment makes the education better for all involved — and not for nothing, but forcing kids to go to school with each other also happens to be the only truly effective way to promote racial harmony.
In the face of all that, the fact that somebody scored a few points higher on some silly standardized test than somebody else means nothing to me. I don’t think it should mean much to an admissions committee.
So let’s have all the “plus” factors. Let’s have some legacies, some Olympic skiers, some standardized test taking Gods, some athletes, some poor people, some Hispanics, some Europeans, and so on. As Kermit the Frog once said: lets’ have more dogs, and cats, and chickens, and things.
Let’s have a diverse educational environment. It’s not about whether a student “deserves” to get into a school; it’s about the kind of environment a school owes to its students.
Class in American Legal Education [Denver University Law Review]
Study Finds ‘Lopsided’ Concentration of Socioeconomic Elites at Law Schools [ABA Journal]