Enrollment has fallen a total of 28% since 2010, causing a budget crunch. As enrollment declines, so too have incoming LSATs and GPAs. But does the decline matter? Because the LSAT is the best predictor before law school of whether a student will pass or fail the bar exam, it does. A number of studies, close analysis of relevant data, and the ABA standards reinforce the developing problem: many law schools are enrolling students who face substantial risk of failing the bar exam to keep their doors open.

Changing Risk Profiles

Entering Students, 25th Percentile LSAT

Minimal Risk 156-180 Low Risk 153-155 Modest Risk 150-152 High Risk 147-149 Very High Risk 145-146 Extreme Risk 120-144
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  • The table to the right shows the risk of bar failure by LSAT score. Undergraduate GPA, bar exam difficulty, and academic programs mitigate or exacerbate this starting point.
  • High risk, very high risk, and extreme risk schools are collectively "serious" risk schools. Students scoring at this level are "at risk."
  • In 2010, 30 schools admitted classes consisting of at least 25% at-risk students. Of those 30 schools there were 4 extreme risk, 4 very high risk, and 22 high risk schools.
  • In 2014, 74 schools admitted classes consisting of at least 25% at-risk students. Of those 74 schools there were 26 extreme risk, 19 very high risk, and 29 high risk.
  • In 2014, 37 schools admitted classes consisting of at least 50% at-risk students (7 extreme, 11 very high, 19 high), up from 9 (3 very high, 6 high).
  • A law school could reasonably admit some students with lower LSAT scores if counterbalanced with higher UGPAs. On average, serious risk law schools did not mitigate the decline in LSAT scores with improved GPA profiles. These schools will need to increase academic attrition, which is currently holding steady, and change the academic experience if they hope to maintain bar passage rates. But even these steps may not be enough.

Facts about Serious Risk Schools

  • At-risk students subsidize tuition for peers who are more likely to pass the bar exam and obtain gainful employment. As price discrimination shifts even more dramatically away from at-risk students, they will pay even higher prices.
  • Average net tuition at serious risk schools is only $1905 less than at the other schools. Even if a student receives a scholarship at one of these schools, the scholarship is more likely to be conditional and more likely to be eliminated.
  • Legal job rates are considerably worse at the serious risk schools. A serious risk school is 4 times as likely to have a below average legal job rate. Nearly three-quarters of schools with employment rates below 50% were serious risk schools.
  • Every for-profit law school enrolled classes consisting of at least 50% at-risk students. The Infilaw-owned schools enrolled classes consisting of between 75% and 100% at-risk students. For-profit school graduates have lower bar passage rates, worse job rates, and more debt. For-profit schools also graduate a higher percentage of students with debt and receive more total federal student loans on a per-school basis than public or private schools.
  • Based on available salary data from serious risk schools, graduates from these programs cannot service their debts without generous federal hardship programs. Even top earners at the more affordable schools face economic difficulty; the rest range from economic difficulty to catastrophe.

Action Items

  • Bar passage rates will drop significantly over the next three years, leaving thousands deep in debt with few prospects for employment that will enable them to pay off their debt. These bar pass rates will not satisfy students or the public; neither will they reflect well on law schools and the legal profession.
  • We expect many schools to claim that they are placing bets on students seeking opportunities other schools won't provide, but the reality is that these schools are placing a bet that the profession, accreditors, and government will stand idly by.

ABA – Immediate Actions

  • As the national accreditor of U.S. law schools, the ABA Section of Legal Education is situated to hold law schools accountable. The section includes an accreditation committee and a staff.
  • The section's staff should direct the 74 serious risk law schools to provide the four most recent years of student-level LSAT and GPA numbers under Rule 7 of the ABA Standards to determine compliance with Standard 501, the "do not exploit" standard. Additionally, the staff should direct schools to provide empirical support suggesting why at-risk students are likely to complete school and pass the bar in accordance with Standard 501.
  • Under Rule 6, the accreditation committee should open an investigation into the schools that the staff determines to be probably non-compliant with Standard 501.
  • The accreditation committee should issue public sanctions for schools it finds non-compliant with Standard 501 and immediately withdraw accreditation from schools that violate the bar pass standard, Standard 316.

ABA – Future Actions

  • The ABA should eliminate Standard 316 loopholes and adopt an ultimate bar passage rate of 85% within 2 years of graduation.
  • In an effort to balance opportunity and consumer protection, the ABA should coordinate an examination at the end of the first year of law school in order to identify students who should not continue earlier in the process.
  • The ABA should overhaul consumer information disclosures for bar passage rates, completion rates, and admissions statistics.
  • The ABA should adopt a gainful employment standard similar to the one utilized by the Department of Education.

Law Schools and Central Universities

  • Law school faculty and university administrators should examine the admissions choices its law school is making as it relates to student success during law school and on the bar exam.
  • Law schools and central universities that see an opportunity to grow enrollment should do so responsibly, primarily focusing on external factors.
  • Law schools should adopt transparent pricing models to better attract students.
  • Law schools should shift financial aid resources to at-risk students to prove that they are interested in providing opportunities rather than just to secure federal loan dollars.
  • Law schools should improve culture and academic programs to enhance opportunity for minorities and those from disadvantage backgrounds.

Other Recommendations

  • The Department of Education and interested U.S. Senators should investigate how judiciously law schools use federal student loan dollars, as well as how well the ABA enforces Standard 316 and Standard 501 and the ABA's progress on Rule 6 investigations.
  • State Bar authorities should help the ABA in data collection and adopt new professional rules of conduct related to the obligations of law school administrators and faculty to educate prospective members of the legal profession in a manner consistent with rest of the profession's obligations to society.