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Karen Sloan, Ahead of the Curve: The Whitest Law Schools, Law.com ( Last Visited: March 16, 2021) (Reprint Permission Requested)
An interesting email hit my inbox last week, touting the release of a new report dubbed “The Whitest Law Schools,” which was compiled by Vernellia Randall, professor emerita at the University of Dayton School of Law. The name intrigued me so I decided to delve in and see what it’s all about.
It turns out that the 2021 report is an update of a similar one Randall produced back in 2004, which ranked law schools based on the percentage of white students in their first-year classes, and how that percentage compared to a school’s applicant pool and the diversity of its home state. I wasn’t familiar with the initial report (I’ve been covering law schools for a long time, but not that long), and this struck me as an interesting opportunity to see how much progress—or not—legal education has made on the student diversity front in the 17 years between Randall’s two reports.
Of course, you can always go back and scrounge up statistics from the American Bar Association on the percentage of minority first-year law students for a comparison. For the record, that figure was 22% in 2004 and nearly 33% in 2020, according to the ABA. But that doesn’t really tell you what’s happening at the individual law school level, which is a focus of The Whitest Law Schools. Randall has recorded a helpful overview of her work, in which she explains why she felt like legal education needed to examine its diversity problem from a different angle:
“In 2004, I decided that the way people look at the diversity is—in my mind—wrong. They are always looking at it from how few minorities we have. I thought, ‘Hmm, I think you should be looking at how too many whites you have.’ If you are overrepresented in whites, you basically don’t have room to get people of color in unless you expand your class.”
So Randall devised two different ways to measure a law school’s “whiteness.” The first one is pretty straightforward: What percentage of a school’s first-year class is comprised of white students? In 2004, the average “whiteness” percentage across law schools was 77%, and the median percentage was 81%. By the 2021 report—which relied on mean first-year enrollment data from 2017 through 2019—the average “whiteness” percentage across schools had fallen to 67%, with a median of 71%. The “whiteness” level had decreased at 94% of law schools since 2004—which Randall took as a positive sign. But she noted that whiteness decreased the most among private law schools, and law schools in the fourth tier of the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
“The takeaway for me is that in the last 17 years, only a small number of schools did not decrease in total whiteness,” Randall said. “It’s a value judgment to say how much of an improvement in 17 years—because it’s not even one point a year—to have a mean decrease of 10 points. But that has occurred.”
The second component of Randall’s ranking is “excess whiteness,” which refers to how a law school’s first-year student body compares to the racial makeup of its applicant pool and the state where it’s located. To reach this figure, Randall compared the percentage of each school’s white first-year students to the percentage of whites in the national law school applicant pool, the school’s regional applicant pool, its state applicant pool, and the percentage the overall white population in its home state. This helps control for the fact that certain states and regions are more diverse than others, and the law schools in those diverse regions ought to have more diverse student bodies. The “excess whiteness” metric is also meant to poke holes at the familiar refrain among legal academics that their student bodies lack diversity because the applicant pool is not diverse. Therefore, schools that land high on “excess whiteness” are less diverse than their states and their applicant pools. Altogether, law schools in 2021 were 11 percentage points “more white” than the national law school applicant pool, Randall found.
But when Randall zeroed in on the 22 law schools that had no excess whiteness on the 2021 report—meaning their first-year classes were as diverse or more diverse than their home state and applicant pools—she found something interesting: They spanned all tiers and corners of the country. There were several law school at historically black colleges and universities; a few standalone law schools; a couple of public law schools, and four of the nation’s most elite law schools: Yale, Harvard, Columbia and Cornell.
“There’s a real mix of schools that had no excess whiteness, which is encouraging to me because even though it’s only 22 schools out of 200 that had no excess whiteness, it speaks to the issue that this is not an unreasonable expectation,” Randall said. “If it can be done by this list of schools, it can be done by other schools. The real issue is the motivation to make the changes to do it and to keep it done. That’s the other issue. This is not something you can do one time and walk away from. This is something you have to stay on top of.”
Ultimately, Randall’s ranking of The Whitest Law Schools is a combination of the “total whiteness” metric and the “excess whiteness” metrics. The University of Georgia School of Law was No. 1, followed by Samford University Cumberland School of Law at No. 2; Mercer University School of Law at No. 3; Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law at No. 4; and Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law at No. 5.
So what to do with this information? Randall offered a few suggestions during her presentation on the report. They include:
- Do away with standardized tests in law school admissions.
- Set goals and deadlines to eliminate excess whiteness
- Change accreditation rules that have disparate racial impacts
- Move away from grading on a curve and comparing students to each other.