Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Michigan's New Admissions Policy

[posted by Bill Henderson, cross-posted at ELS Blog]

Over at Moneylaw, rankings guru Tom Bell (Chapman) breaks an important story:  The University of Michigan Law School has introduced the new Wolverine Scholars program, which is a special admissions program for UM undergraduates. It has two threshold requirements:  (1) your UGPA must be at least 3.80, and (2) you cannot have taken the LSAT. 

Studying the labor market for lawyers--including law school rankings, which is a important mechanism for mediating supply and demand--has made me sensitive to potential ulterior motives beyond the standard cant of "admitting the best students."   While I would love to see a world where the LSAT is assigned its rightful limited place in law school admissions, I cannot overcome the perception that Michigan is really just upping the U.S. News gamesmanship.  The lofty rhetoric of the Wolverine Scholar program cannot be squared with the unnecessarily rigid admissions criteria.  In my opinion, the only rational explanation is that Michigan seeks a rankings payoff.   Here, an elite law school sets a new low in our obsession of form over substances--once again, we legal educators are setting a poor example for our students. 

Readers can judge for themselves.  Here is how Michigan pitches the Wolverine Scholars program:

The Law School’s in-depth familiarity with Michigan undergrad curricula and faculty, coupled with significant historic data for assessing the potential performance of Michigan undergrads at the Law School, will allow us to perform an intensive review of the undergraduate curriculum of applicants, even beyond the typical close scrutiny we devote ... . For this select group of qualified applicants, therefore, we will omit our usual requirement that applicants submit an LSAT score.

With the exception of the intensified review of the undergraduate academic record and the omission of the LSAT, our admissions review and philosophy is the same for the Wolverine Scholars Program as it is generally. Thus, our evaluation criteria are holistic, and comprise the wide range of relevant considerations that can’t be reduced to any mechanical formula. We look for highly intelligent people who welcome challenging experiences, who have demonstrated leadership and community service, who have shown determination and discipline, who are eager to outdo themselves, and who are creative and resilient in dealing with adversity. We pay attention to evidence of academic progress. So, too, we pay attention to considerations – working many hours, coming from an educationally deprived background, having primary care responsibilities for family members, and so on – that may provide a context for the formal record of academic achievement. ... We look for individuals with intriguingly different backgrounds, experiences, goals, and perspectives. Academic majors, work experience, extracurricular activities, distinctive moral and political outlooks, socioeconomic background, time living or working abroad, and more inform our admissions decisions.

Wonderful stuff.   But it is impossible to take the above excerpt seriously when we focus on the unreal application cutoff:   

"Application Eligibility.  UM undergraduates who have at least completed their junior year ... with at least six full-time semesters of attendance on the UM-Ann Arbor campus and a UM cumulative grade point average of ≥ 3.80 are eligible to apply." [Emphasis in the original -- yes the original!]

So, a priori, the following student need not apply:  a UM chemistry or engineering major with a 3.75 GPA who comes from a blue collar family in the rural Michigan who put himself through college by running a business and volunteers in an organization for the disabled.   For this person, "holistic review" requires an LSAT score.   He or she may not be one of the "highly intelligent people" UM is looking for.  But the privileged frat boy who majored in political science and earned a 3.81 gets a free pass.  It is hard to imagine a more misguided "mechanical formula."  More after the jump. ...

If Michigan was being serious, they would set the benchmark at 3.4 or 3.5  and actually conduct a true holistic review.  So why didn't they?  One logical possibility:  if the true motive is a rankings grab (i.e., a "mechanical formula") toward the 3.8 crowd, a FOIA request could lay it bare.  Yet, if you set the program at 3.8 and admit 90%, few people can quibble with the merit criteria--they are all capable candidates. 

The rankings motive is further corroborated by the disqualification if the potential Wolverine Scholar has taken the LSAT.  If Michigan were just interested in the best people, it would just ignore the LSAT.  After all, Michigan has a better predictor of success:  the "significant historic data for assessing the potential performance of Michigan undergrads at the Law School."  If holistic review is really taking place, excluding folks who have taken the LSAT has no rational basis beyond a hit in the rankings.  Again, if these folks get into the applicant pool, a FOIA request would expose any selection patterns that looks like the "mechanical formula" the Law School has allegedly disavowed.

More seriously, there are terrible externalities from this alleged merit-based program.   It is impossible to deny that the Wolverine Scholars program will encourage students to (a) take easier classes and majors to avoid the need to take the LSAT to get into an elite law school, (b) discourage extracurriculars that will threaten the 3.8, and (c) make a lot of Michigan undergraduate professors miserable with complaints from students that their B+ or A- grade is going to blow their Wolverine Scholar application.   

From a rankings perspective, what happens when you get 20, 30, or 40 candidates with 3.8+ UPGA and no LSAT score?  From day 1 of admissions season, Michigan has much greater latitude to lock in higher median LSAT and UPGA numbers--because zero Wolverine Scholars are dragging down the LSAT and all are helping the UPGA numbers.   Further, because of the idiosyncrasies of the USNWR rankings formula, see Ted Seto's "Understanding the U.S. News Law School Rankings," at the upper ranges, small changes in UGPA have a much greater sway on rankings that a single LSAT point.  For example, in the simulation model that Andy Morriss and I created, a move from 3.64 to 3.66 has a greater effect than a move from 169 to 170.   If Michigan can get to a 3.80 UGPA, they could tie with NYU at #5.

A final point is the ABA accreditation requirement, which requires an admissions test:

Standard 503. ADMISSION TEST

A law school shall require each applicant for admission as a first year J.D. student to take a valid and reliable admission test to assist the school and the applicant in assessing the applicant’s capability of satisfactorily completing the school’s educational program. In making admissions decisions, a law school shall use the test results in a manner that is consistent with the current guidelines regarding proper use of the test results provided by the agency that developed the test.

Interpretation 503-1

A law school that uses an admission test other than the Law School Admission Test sponsored by the Law School Admission Council shall establish that such other test is a valid and reliable test to assist the school in assessing an applicant’s capability to satisfactorily complete the school’s educational program.

The Wolverine Scholar program requires a waiver to access a student's SAT and/or ACT scores.  I assume that is how Michigan would proffer these test scores as a "valid and reliable test" for determining whether a student can complete the Michigan JD program.  Why not?  Northwestern's JD/MBA programs accepts the GMAT as substitute for the LSAT, and it passed muster during NW Law's recent re-accreditation.   I doubt the ABA will try to draw a line here (and for the record, I don't think this is battle worth fighting--ignoring the LSAT for UM undergrads who have a 3.8 is not going to produce bad educational outcomes).

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I once heard a (very brilliant) Michigan law professor mention a book review of Lady Chatterly's Lover that appeared in Field and Stream Magazine (FYI -- I'm not sure the review actually existed, but it conveys a useful point . . .). The Field and Stream reviewer wrote something like this: "Lady Chatterly's Lover is a book about . . . gamekeeping."

There are a number of scholars who do very interesting (and valuable) work on law school rankings and US News. I'm not so convinced, however, that every action taken by law schools is driven by US News.

This is the first I've heard of the "Wolverine Scholar" program, but it reminds me of the programs adopted by Texas and CA in the wake of anti-affirmative action measures in those states. TX, for example, guarantees the top 10% of graduating students from TX high schools admission into a TX public university -- and as far as I'm aware, SAT scores are not required. Michigan recently passed its own anti-affirmative action measure (Prop 2). Maybe this admissions innovation is, at least in part, a response to that law (on the theory that standardized tests may not be a great indicator of success for some portions of the population), rather than some way to bolster its US News ranking. To be sure, this new program is open to people of all races; but it could still have a beneficial impact on minority enrollment in the law school by taking test scores out of the equation for UM undergrads (much as the TX program is purported to have a beneficial impact on minority enrollment in TX schools). In other words, I think there's a plausible explanation for the MI move that is unrelated to US News (Georgetown may be a different story).


Posted by: Rob Mikos | Sep 25, 2008 1:14:39 PM

It's 99% about affirmative action, 1% about U.S. news. It's about being able to admit minorities without violating the law. The number 1 item keeping minorities out is the standardized test. Eliminate the LSAT and they can admit minorities without vioting the law. The effect is being able to admit the minorities without lowering U.S. news ranking. But don't be mistaken. The purpose is just to be able to admit minorities. UM would, and did so easily before the court ruling (all top schools continue to do so), choose diversity over reporting a bit lower numbers.

Posted by: | Sep 25, 2008 7:47:02 PM

If it were about affirmative action, Dearborn's and Flint's campuses would *definitely* be included! Not surprisingly they excluded them because those campuses have *much* higher minority student populations, especially black and latino. Anyone who has been to the three campus sites knows this. UM Ann Arbor is the whitest and most affluent of the three. It is also where the main law school resides. So if affirmative action were the motivating factor, they definitely would have opened it up to all three. In fact it is a way of excluding potential minority students because Dearborn and Flint are now at an unfair disadvantage compared to their Ann Arbor counterparts. So with all things being equal a privileged frat boy at UM-Ann Arbor with a no-brainer major can coast into law school before an inner-city Detroit girl at UM-Dearborn with a similar major and identical GPA. She has to take the LSAT like anyone outside of UM-AA. Who's more deserving?

Posted by: Sean | Sep 26, 2008 8:01:33 PM

Really? Affirmative action? Is there a huge tranche of minority students at Mich-AA with 3.80+ GPAs? I HIGHLY doubt it. This is rankings gaming, pure and unadulterated.

Posted by: Greg | Oct 6, 2008 2:22:33 PM

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