August 24, 2007

Did Affirmative Action Hold Down The Number Of Black Attorneys?

The Wall Street Journal steps into the hornet's nest of racial politics today with a provocative commentary from Gail Heriot. She points to a UCLA study that claims race-based admissions policies to universities designed to boost African-Americans may have inadvertently created the already-noted disparity in Bar success. Professor Richard Sander's research indicates that affirmative action may have "mismatched" black law students by putting them above of their academic capabilities, and that better matching could have made them successful attorneys:

Mr. Sander's original article noted that when elite law schools lower their academic standards in order to admit a more racially diverse class, schools one or two tiers down feel they must do the same. As a result, there is now a serious gap in academic credentials between minority and non-minority law students across the pecking order, with the average black student's academic index more than two standard deviations below that of his average white classmate.

Not surprisingly, such a gap leads to problems. Students who attend schools where their academic credentials are substantially below those of their fellow students tend to perform poorly.

The reason is simple: While some students will outperform their entering academic credentials, just as some students will underperform theirs, most students will perform in the range that their academic credentials predict. As a result, in elite law schools, 51.6% of black students had first-year grade point averages in the bottom 10% of their class as opposed to only 5.6% of white students. Nearly identical performance gaps existed at law schools at all levels. This much is uncontroversial.

Academic matching has been universally accepted among institutions. It's one of the reasons that Harvard rejects 90% of its applicants. Students not academically prepared for Harvard's rigorous and demanding educational standards will fail there where they may flourish at the University of Minnesota -- and still receive a fine education. It may not result in the same social networking as Harvard or Georgetown, but the end result is more likely to be an attorney rather than a dropout or a Bar failure.

Sander found that when law students of all backgrounds attend schools that fit their academic profile, they tend to have the same amount of success. Especially in law school, the educational systems use competition to determine success, and those prepared to compete on a fairly even basis have the same chances to succeed. Sander even found that blacks and whites have similar rates for passing the Bar exam after graduation under these circumstances.

What difference does this make, some might ask? After all, it's better to get more of the disadvantaged into higher-profile schools, even if a few more fail because of it. Well, there's another problem, and this one is financial. Students have to take out fairly large loans to attend top-flight schools, and they wind up in six-figure debt by the time they graduate, or drop out, especially at law schools. If they can't pass a Bar exam, they have few options for paying out that debt -- when a better match may have prepared them better and allowed them a way to pay back all of the loans that got them through the process.

Obviously, this needs more study for validation. Sander would like to conduct that research, but he's run up against a roadblock: the California State Bar. They refuse to release the Bar exam data that would allow him to expand his sample and either confirm or refute the correlations of his first study. In fact, the Society of American Law Teachers threatened to sue the State Bar if they cooperated with Sander.

Why? Plenty of people make a healthy living in the diversity industry. If the affirmative action programs at universities turn out to be harmful to those they intended to help, it makes everyone look like fools and brings an end to the jobs it provides. Sanders will find Academia very cold to that kind of sociological research. The Wall Street Journal wants to shame Academia into allowing the pursuit of the truth, rather than the protection of a sacred cow.


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Comments (11)

Posted by steve sturm | August 24, 2007 8:55 AM

Here's a different way of looking at this: why shouldn't every student graduating from an accredited law school be able to pass the bar, regardless of where they went to law school and regardless of where in their graduating class they ranked?

Even if someone better suited for the University of Minnesota did go to Harvard (whether by affirmative action or some other preference), and, as a result, did poorly (at least relative to their classmates) and ranked in the bottom of their class, ought they not have learned enough at Harvard to be able to pass the bar exam? Someone smart enough to get into the University of Minnesota should also be smart enough to pick up enough at Harvard to pass their bar.... even if they are 'dumb' in comparison to their classmates.

Posted by Sander is unimpressive | August 24, 2007 9:15 AM

FWIW, my impression is that Sander's work has been thoroughly discredited at every stage of the game, and he is desperate to fix it by getting more data. But since all the data he has crunched thus far has led to unimpressive, invalid results, the likely result is that the same thing would happen once he got his hands on more data.

Posted by LarryD | August 24, 2007 9:34 AM

Your impression? Informed by what, your gut feelings?

Either link to a credible criticism, or show how Sander's work is flawed.

Right now, you just look like someone in denial, or trying to protect AA jobs.

Posted by GarandFan | August 24, 2007 9:37 AM

"Plenty of people make a healthy living in the diversity industry."

Damn right they do, and they don't want anyone looking over their shoulder.

Just like the main stream press.

Posted by JRL | August 24, 2007 9:52 AM

Good grief...News flash!!!! This may shock you. The legal profession has just as many half-wits as any other vocation. Why oh why do folks try and associate intelligence with the practicing of law? These are, by no means, associative issues. In fact, I’ve found that a good number of lawyers who venture into the courtroom must surely have someone tying their shoes for them before they get there…white, brown, taupe, heliotrope…it matters not what color.

And Harvard? *snort* They have been dumbing down their offerings ever since some troglodyte decided that "competition" was unhealthy on the PC Left. All behold the mighty PASS/FAIL curriculum. In 2001, 91% of Harvard seniors graduated with honors. Over half of the undergraduates were A or A- level. In other words, everyone had a cone of chocolate, and no one was entitled to the banana split…because all they had was chocolate.

All colleges have been lowering their standards voluntarily and have been doing so for years. Affirmative Action is merely a small piece of the means. Probably, the most instrumental factor in the down hill flow comes from the make-up of the faculty. More and more agenda driven drivel spews forth in place of what used to be mandatory levels of comprehension. There has been an 81% plunge in mandatory courses since 1964. Ah, but now you have the option of settling into a nice little lecture course twice a week where some Birkenstock clad no-nothing can enlighten you on your failings as a male, what type tree you would be if you could choose to be one, or how Josef Stalin would have made a wonderful camp counselor.

Bottom line is that the legal profession (for reasons that escape me since I know it intimately) still seems to carry a form of prestige. You know the deal… “Oh yes…my son is a Lawyer.” Even more amazing is the fact that Harvard Law seems to carry prestige as well. Each is doing so on past reputation, however. Today, professors lower expectations, simplify examinations, and require more general texts. This is not in accommodation of the minority (Affirmative Action) student. This is to accommodate the overall student that has already been dulled and molded at the elementary and secondary level of their education.

“Heather has Two Mommies.” Wonderful…two bad Heather can’t understand a Venn diagram, or figure out the Cosine. Ahhh…but she knows all about comfortable shoes and global warming.

Posted by experience | August 24, 2007 11:42 AM

One explanation for the problem is that the higher ranked, more prestigious law schools make it a point not to teach what students need to know to pass the bar. They consider it beneath both the professors and the students.

After the first year, most law school classes at those schools are highly specialized or theory courses. Graduates of these schools generally have the capability to learn what they need to know for the bar (which is a lot of information) in a few weeks of intense study in the summer after graduation. If you have less ability, you need to attend a school that teaches for the bar more thoroughly than the top schools.

Posted by Rich Horton | August 24, 2007 12:41 PM

Even if someone better suited for the University of Minnesota did go to Harvard (whether by affirmative action or some other preference), and, as a result, did poorly (at least relative to their classmates) and ranked in the bottom of their class, ought they not have learned enough at Harvard to be able to pass the bar exam? Someone smart enough to get into the University of Minnesota should also be smart enough to pick up enough at Harvard to pass their bar

Yes and no.

If you are lacking certain skills here is really only so much you can do. Imagine someone who has basic algebra skills being thrown straight into a differential equations class. Now, the really hard working students might be able to pick up enough calculus on their own to scrape by but they won't learn as much about the subject as they would had they the background they needed beforehand. All of their hard work is being wasted in just trying to keep their heads above water.

The idea that you could throw students into any educational setting and they would thrive is simply naive. Harvard is the school it is not because of any top-down mechanism, i.e. the belief that "the school is great, and that greatness is grafted upon Harvard students." No, Harvard is a good place because it gets students who already bring a certain amount of knowledge and skill to Cambridge, Mass. This is shown by the fact that the very top black students succeed at the same rate as anybody else, because they had the tools they needed to succeed.

Different schools demand different tool sets. Unfortunately the desire to meet certain quota levels among minority groups has led to mismatching students and schools.

Now, there are exceptional cases where students lacking in basic tools, no matter what thier racial/ethnic background, were able to master them quickly in a demanding environment and succeed spectacularly. But those are rare individuals. It seems like a poor social policy to cater to these rare exceptions. The truth is those students would succeed no matter where they went to brilliant people are want to do. But putting students with fair to good skills in an environment that demands excellent to fantastic skills was never going to work in the long run. It is just a recipe for unnecessary failure.

Posted by DubiousD | August 24, 2007 12:54 PM

Reminds me of an account from Dinesh D'Souza's "Illiberal Education" where he noted that affirmative action led to a 60% drop out rate of black students at UC Berkeley. The push for quotas drove UCB to accept the applications of black students ill-equipped to handle the curricula. Result: most of the recruitees ended up dropping out before grad day. (The overall drop-out rate for non-black students was in the 30% range.)

Posted by unclesmrgol | August 24, 2007 1:06 PM

Sanders buttresses a comment that Clarence Thomas made a few months ago.

Thomas indicates the answer to Steve Sturm's question above:

Diane Brady: Father Brooks laments the fact that the school didn't have the same success with black students, say, 10 or 20 years later. Why do you think that is?
Clarence Thomas: I always thought part of the problem was that there was much more competition for the kids. So there was a greater chance that kids were being pulled into situations where they were overmatched. Kids were going to School A, who should have been at School B, and the ones at School B should have been at School C. So everybody was pulled up a level above where they should be. And you began to have problems that we did not have. We did not have those mismatches early on.

To paraphrase Thomas' point, it's like taking a high school Jackie Robinson and trying to have him play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It might have worked, but probably not. And, if it didn't work, it would have been lose-lose all around, because Robinson would not have been given a second chance, the Dodgers would have had a crappy season, and there would be a ton of articles proclaiming "see, blacks just can't handle the majors".

Posted by viking01 | August 24, 2007 1:14 PM

About fifteen years ago a pharmaceutical research company where my brother in law then worked decided they (he) would hire the valedictorian chemistry major from a well known "black university." Based upon her solid GPA and a passable interview she seemed to them to be a worthy candidate for the position.

During her first week of employment it became clear she had little concept of laboratory method and even less foundation in basic chemistry. There became no doubt that merely going through the motions was sufficient for her to have taken her fake degree. Attempts to be diplomatic with the girl were tried. Repeated attempts were made to ask "how can we put this on paper in a procedure which you can then follow appropriately?" The company had some justifiable fears that if the incompetent hire played the race card ( a Jazzy Jackson style shakedown) they could lose far more than valuable research time. After about a month of tutoring the girl in (for all practical purposes) test tube washing the company let Mz. Valedictorian go. They could not afford to keep an obvious incompetent on board simply to be diverse. Research needed to be done where in hard science it simply isn't enough to look the part and wear the lab coat. The racism of low expectations had given that girl a high GPA, a fancy title yet no preparation or real world skills to get things done in her major field.

Does anyone honestly think Cornel West, for example, would be teaching his laughable bitterness studies course at Princeton were academic standards higher across the board? Sometimes wearing a suit is insufficient camouflage of one best qualified for the fast food industry.

The racism of low expectations necessitates a set-aside job for the quota degree recipient and quota admissions candidate. There's a Monty Python job counselor skit where the advisor asks the client "Yes, but have you got any qualifications to be a lion tamer?" The client replies "I've got a hat." Fake degrees awarded and social promotion advancement through schools solely for race reasons are little more than a hat.

Posted by Bennett | August 24, 2007 6:38 PM

In my experience, the best lawyers don't go to the best schools or if they did, they weren't academic stars. And many fine lawyers fail the bar exam on the first try. You can go to the best law school in the country and land yourself a job on Wall Street and be really proud of yourself until you run up against the guy who went to some no-name school where he got mediocre grades and barely passed the exam. And he whips your a** in some case.

Out in the real world, nobody cares about what a great student you were or how you aced the exam. Most of all, your clients don't care. This is what many law students don't realize until they're lawyers. Nobody cares about all those fine credentials on your resume. It's all about results.

This really has nothing to do with the WSJ article but it seemed apropos in some way, I'm not sure how exactly.

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