Wednesday, March 11, 2015
The Intricate Associations between Diversity and Law Student Engagement By Deirdre Bowen and Aaron Taylor
Diversity in higher education has long been known to enhance the educational process. The beneficial effects of diversity on student learning have provided the main justification for the continued, though increasingly attacked, consideration of race in higher education admissions. Despite these attacks, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that colleges and universities may pursue racial and ethnic diversity as part of their academic missions. The Court reasons that this diversity “serves values beyond race alone,” including “enhanced classroom dialogue and the lessening of racial isolation and stereotypes.”
Reams of studies confirm this viewpoint. Racial and ethnic diversity among students provides “the necessary conditions under which other educational policies can facilitate improved academic achievement, improved intergroup relations, and positive long-term outcomes.” Student diversity aids the exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives, whether in the classroom or through informal interactions. These experiences, in turn, promote the academic mission by fostering “learning outcomes, democratic values and civic engagement, and preparation for a diverse society and workforce.”
The research on the effects of racial and ethnic diversity on the undergraduate experience is very robust. Rarely, however, has there been a large-scale, multi-year study of the effects at the graduate or professional school level. This dearth of research is especially acute and consequential in legal education. Only a handful of school-specific studies have been conducted, in spite of the broad climate of assessment and soul-searching that has engulfed legal education over the last few years. These studies have tended to focus only on the most selective law schools, rendering the results less generalizable.But for the first time, a large-scale, multi-year study of the effects of diversity in legal education has been conducted. The results are encouraging. When students perceive that their law school encourages diversity and fosters diverse interactions, students report having both a better understanding of people from other racial and ethnic backgrounds and better training in solving complex problems—a fundamental skill every lawyer should possess.
The analysis was conducted using almost 95,000 responses to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), received between 2010 and 2012 from students at 127 law schools. LSSSE is an annual survey of the effects of legal education on students. As the name highlights, it is centered on the concept of student engagement, which is based on the premise that the more engrossing the educational experience, the more students will gain from it. Student engagement and student learning tend to flow together. Indeed, much of the research positions student engagement as a useful proxy for student learning. Therefore, the effects of diversity on student engagement are of fundamental importance.
LSSSE poses various questions about the student experience. The analysis of these responses uncovered an intricate web of variables that work together in helping students experience the benefits of diversity. One question asks students to assess the extent to which their legal education has prepared them to “solve complex real-world problems.” Lawyers are essentially problem solvers, and the “real-world” in which they work is an increasingly diverse one.
The analysis found that the more students perceived that their law school prepared them to “solve complex real-world problems,” the more they also perceived that their law school aided their “understanding of people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds” and vice versa. The association between these variables yielded a strong positive correlation coefficient of 0.6 (out of 1.0).
In addition to their association with each other, the “solve complex…problems” and “understanding of people of other…backgrounds” questions yielded moderate-to-strong positive coefficients with the extent to which students felt their legal education encouraged “contact among students from different economic, social, sexual orientation, and racial or ethnic backgrounds” (0.5 and 0.4 respectively). Thus, diverse interactions appear to be central to experiencing the educational benefits of diversity.
For schools, establishing a culture of diverse interactions means supporting students not only academically, but also socially. Responses to questions about the extent to which students felt their schools provided “the support needed to thrive socially” yielded a moderately strong coefficient of 0.5 with the “contact among students from different…backgrounds” question.
Responses to questions about the frequency in which students had “serious conversations” with other students “of a different race or ethnicity” or other students “who are very different in terms of religious beliefs, political opinions, or personal values” further reveal the significance of diverse interactions. These two questions were strongly and positively correlated with each other (0.7), demonstrating the interconnected nature of racial and ethnic diversity and diversity of religious beliefs, political opinions and personal values.
Responses to both “serious conversations” questions were also positively correlated (0.3) with responses to the “contact among students from different…backgrounds” and the “understanding of people of other…backgrounds” questions. Further, the “serious conversations” responses yielded moderately strong correlations with the frequency with which students “discussed ideas from readings or class with others outside of class” (0.4). And, from there, these outside of class discussions influenced student perceptions about the extent to which their legal education has prepared them to “solve complex…problems” (0.3).
This analysis reflects the fact that student engagement is greatly influenced by academic policies and practices. For law schools to achieve the benefits of diversity, they must not only enroll diverse classes, but also encourage diverse interactions. Policies and practices premised on these goals foster increased understanding of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and favorable perceptions of various aspects of the law school experience. And the upshot is higher levels of student engagement and learning, and graduates who are better prepared for their professional and ethical responsibilities.
The downturn in legal education has forced law schools to consider their effectiveness. Additionally, sustained attacks on race-conscious affirmative action have placed increased burden on schools to justify the explicit consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions. This analysis of LSSSE data provides encouraging insights about the effects of diversity in legal education, as well as a useful framework for forming defenses to court challenges and conducting further research.
Deirdre Bowen is an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law. Aaron N. Taylor is an assistant professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and director of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement.