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Bucking the Bell Curve August 26, 2007

Posted by federalist in Education, Social Politics.
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Affirmative action in law schools provides a particularly poignant picture of how counterproductive it can be to push people into professions for which they are not suited (a problem touched on earlier this year in “Return of the Bell Curve“). This should probably be filed under Department of Unintended Consequences, but Gail Heriot of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights offers a fascinating survey of Richard Sander’s study on the subject:

[T]here 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.

Supporters of race-based admissions argue that, despite the likelihood of poor grades, minority students are still better off accepting the benefit of a preference and graduating from a more prestigious school. But Mr. Sander’s research suggests that just the opposite may be true — that law students, no matter what their race, may learn less, not more, when they enroll in schools for which they are not academically prepared. Students who could have performed well at less competitive schools may end up lost and demoralized. As a result, they may fail the bar.

The individual costs can be daunting:

Under current practices, only 45% of blacks who enter law school pass the bar on their first attempt as opposed to over 78% of whites. Even after multiple tries, only 57% of blacks succeed. The rest are often saddled with student debt, routinely running as high as $160,000, not counting undergraduate debt.

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