"We decided to try to fix it — not the LSAT, or the admissions process, or our students’ test-taking skills, but rather their chances of competing successfully for admission into law school" Dr. Robert Webking
Law school admissions differ from admissions to many graduate institutions. At many other kinds of graduate schools, the admissions process has an almost holistic approach--looking at the "whole student" to cipher out the admissions from the rejections.
Law school admissions use a much more limited form of "discretionary admissions". The "giant first cut" in law school is done by weighting the student's grade point average and Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score. The "formula result" reached by such a weighting (which weight varies a bit from school to school) then is compared with a benchmark, creating sheep and goats. A few folks are admitted (the ratio varies from school to school) based on individualized review, usually because they fall within the "margins" of the formulae. At the most elite schools, so many people have near-top formula results that "holistic" review once again becomes necessary.
This leads to a difficult problem for some kids. Some kids just don't test well. Yet at many law schools, the LSAT is accorded tremendous weight. A student can literally get a 4.0, a thousand academic ribbons, save children in Bengladesh during Summers, get a low LSAT and miss out on the top law schools.
Now in the gurdonark world, top law schools are not the beginning and end of the world. Run of the mill law schools, and hard work, provide plenty of Horatio Alger moments, without those disquieting "but do you know what the novelist was really like?" weirdnesses.
But to a lot of kids, getting into elite schools matter. Sadly, too, in academia and in some aspects of the corporate world, elitism rules over all. This is particularly troubling in the context of kids from under represented minority groups. For whatever reasons, they score lower scores than kids who are not in other groups.
Lots of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth about the fairness of standardized tests arises from all this. I do not propose to address that fascinating debate. Instead, I want to write about a simple way someone undertook to solve the problem within the current system.
The University of Texas at El Paso sits in the Texas desert, just above Mexico, just east of New Mexico. El Paso's desert is gorgeous, a stark area with mountains in the distance. El Paso is hot in the Summer, and yet still manages to get a bit cold in the winter.
UTEP, home of the "Miners", is the local university. But UTEP had a problem when it came to getting kids into law schools. UTEP sent a fair number of kids to law schools. But its top graduates could never get into the top law schools. Its grads were not doing well on the LSAT. A large percentage of its grads are latino, who traditionally underperform Euro-Americans and Asian-Americans on the LSAT. They were simply not getting the scores to go to elite law schools.
I suppose that the folks at UTEP could have written long, academic articles about the manifest cultural biases of the testing regime. They could have written "we fight against the odds" demographic studies about how kids from poor, minority families lose out in elementary schools, and thus can be excused for failing to achieve. They could even have launched calls for law schools to be opened to all performers.
But they took a different task. Rather than tilting at windmills, or writing articles for journals nobody reads about solutions nobody implements, they took on the problem as a simple problem.
What do kids who do get into law school have that kids from UTEP didn't? The answer is simple. They had test preparation for the LSAT. One might imagine that the LSAT must be like the Great Recording Angel, able to look into people's souls, given the extreme weight that law schools accord it. But the reality is that dozens of providers sell thousands of kids test prep courses, and that test prep courses (a) cost a lot and (b) raise test scores.
Kids don't just get 165 on the LSAT because they are a superior species, homo testicus. They pay good, hard money to get good, hard advantages that less monied kids don't get. Dr. Robert Webking and a colleague at UTEP took on a new way to prepare kids for law school. What did UTEP kids need? Not some metaphysical advantage, not raging solutionism, not excuses. They needed simply one thing to get admitted to our nation's top law schools. They needed high LSAT scores.
So Dr. Webking and the folks in the faculty organized a pre-law institute. They took their kids, as well as other regional kids from the same underachieving places, and offered them extensive preparation for how to take the LSAT. The LSAT is a bit like the GRE or the SAT, only it focuses on logic games, intense reading comprehension and somewhat more intense subjects. It is a learnable set of skills, and not a metaphysical charm available only to the worthy.
Guess what? Yes, I know, that's an easy one. UTEP students who went through the program now get many more admits to the nation's top law schools. They take the course, and they do better on the LSAT, and they get into top law schools. I'll skip my bit of invective (equal, by the way, to my feeling that everyone who could sell a book should actually self-publish) about how elite law schools are not really that useful or elite. The point is that rather than raging against the Heavens, UTEP kids just got the help they needed, and they succeeded.
I believe that so often we overlook practical solutions. I am glad that Dr. Webking and the other folks at UTEP went for the jugular of the problem, and law school admission blood is now flowing nicely.