Friday, April 21, 2006

What Do High Undergraduate GPAs at Law Schools Signify?

Brian Leiter's Law School Reports posts Pamela Karlan's thoughts on over-inflated undergraduate GPAs:

I read, with both interest and a fair amount of distress, the 75th percentile LSAT rankings. The distress came from seeing the staggering 75th percentile GPAs. These could reflect at least three states of the world, two of them unfortunate. First, and most optimistically, the 40 schools on your list could all be admitting kids with amazing undergraduate academic achievements. (A 3.96 means, for example a student with 34A's and 2 B+'s as an undergraduate; a 3.85 could mean half A's and half A-'s.)

Second, the GPA's could reflect rampant grade inflation at undergraduate institutions. Leave aside the abstract debate over whether the current generation of students is so much abler than its predecessors that good students should never see a grade below A- or B+. Most law schools have mandatory means or curves, and I'm aware of none where that mean is over around 3.4. (Even at the schools that don't have official means, I would guess the actual mean is no higher than that.) Thus, virtually all law students will have lower, substantially lower, GPA's in law school than they had in college. (E.g., at my own institution, 25% of the students had GPAs
equivalent to what the number 1 student in the normal graduating class is likely to have.) This drop has a number of unfortunate consequences. Many of us are familiar with a huge demoralization effect the day first-semester grades come out and people who've been told all their lives that they are "A's" at everything that's measured hear for the first time that they're "B's." They give up, and simply float through the remaining five semesters. Many have a self-protective defensive reaction: if the law doesn't love them, then they distance themselves from it. In addition, at law schools where there are course-selection strategies that allow students to manipulate their GPA's, students are then drawn not to taking what's good or useful for them, but rather what's most likely to boost their GPAs back toward the range they've internalized as normal. The high UGPAs mean that many of our students have never really learned to bounce back from academic disappointment (the "C" I got my first semester of college is one of the best things that ever happened to me) and like learning to ride a bicycle, it's harder to learn that the older you get.

Third, to get those astronomical UGPA's, students necessarily had to be either (a) extraordinary across the board for their entire undergraduate career (the student who bombs the first year of college because she wasn't yet ready for the work or who was planning to be a physicist before he realized he didn't have the mathematical ability can't get one of these sky-high GPAs) or (b) strategic and risk-averse, taking only the kinds of courses in which they'd get A's, from the time they were 17 or 18 years old. I'd bet it's more the latter than the former. One of the things I always though the U.S. had over many other advanced countries was that we didn't expect students to specialize in only what they were good at when they were still teenagers.
But in order to get a 3.9 UGPA, students really can't take things well outside their comparative advantages. Many of us see the consequences of this in what our students do: they're passive and non-entrepreneurial in their job choices, going to large firms not because that practice particularly attracts them, but because it seems less "risky" right out of law school than going to smaller firms or government jobs. Many of them haven't exercised their intellectual imaginations in years. Many are in fact not particularly well educated, since the science majors took few writing courses, the humanities people took perhaps one semester of economics and flee any quantitative subject, and the social and hard scientists know no American (let alone world) history at all.

Now, of course, we're talking here only about the 75th percentile. Perhaps we could find the students who are comfortable with risk, entrepreneurial, academically and intellectually adventurous, and resilient among the other three-quarters of the class. But even the 25th percentile at top 20 schools have staggering UGPAs. And that sets the tone for the student body.

I'm not sure, as long as US News drives so much of the world, that there's anything to be done. But it's frustrating if what we're trying to do is to train imaginative, entrepreneurial, courageous, resilient lawyers with broad perspectives that one of the central criteria for admitting students undermines our chances of doing that.

There's an incredibly interesting comment thread as well. Here are a few choice snippets:

1) I read your blog on Professor Leiter's website. As an undergraduate, who plans to attend law school and majoring in political science, I have been told by counselors to make sure I keep a high GPA. That is, don't take "hard" classes. I have resisted that advice and I'm taken courses in statistics, economics, mathematics, and a foreign language. Though my GPA is lower than it would have been if I too was strategic, I now feel I better prepared for the world.

2) First, I think that Professor Karlan's post suggests that students are either "strategic and risk averse" or prone to "exercising their intellectual imagination". Instead, I think many modern college students--especially those who do well at top schools--succeed by balancing these two impulses. Thus, one's schedule is forged not simply by an attempt to get the highest grades, but by a balancing act involving academic interests, course requirements, expected grades, commitments to extracurricular activities, and graduation requirements. Students may think strategically at times, but they are not machines driven by strategy and risk aversion alone. While the strategic thinking may strike some as out of place at the college level, we should not overemphasize its influence.Second, Professor Karlan's post does not adequately account for the pressures facing modern college students and for the reasons these pressures exist. To get into a top college, most students had to begin to think strategically long before their freshman year. Why? Because access to the top colleges has expanded tremendously in the last forty years. Admissions requirements have risen tremendously as the competition for admission has become fiercer, and high school students can no longer depend on their educational pedigree alone (eg having been in the top half at Andover) as a means of
ensuring their entrance to a top college. Most college students do not think they have (and most likely do not in truth have) the luxury to treat college as a time for intellectual exploration alone. The "pure" liberal arts ideal is premised on a non-instrumental relationship to education that has been rendered unworkable by the positive changes within American education over the last half century.

3) I wonder whether Professor Karlan's comments better describe the situation at Harvard or similar elite schools than at Maryland or schools of that ilk or even schools further down the totem pole. My sense of the universe at the University of Maryland is that almost anyone with a fair degree of intelligence can wind up with a very high GPA if they devote themselves to that effort, even if they take fairly demanding courses in the humanities and social sciences (I think Professor Edelman is correct that maintaining a higher average in the sciences is more difficult). And unlike elite schools, the top 10% at average state U. may wind up with a high GPA simply because they are smarter than most of their peers. In short, at average state U., a commitment to hard work or significantly above average intelligence is likely to result in a very high GPA without grade inflation or shopping for weak classes.

I generally agree with Prof. Karlan and the commenters I quoted. Then again, I went to a respected, but not "flagship" state university. I was a liberal arts major (half the time, the other half I was a social sciences major). I took statistics instead of linguistics (which for some reason counted towards the math requirement), I took two years of ancient Latin instead of the far easier (and in which I was already trained) Spanish. And I took many difficult, but challenging courses outside my two majors--just for fun. Like Romanesque art history, Epistemology, Aristotelian Ethics, and Anthropology.

And I did all of this while working and juggling childcare for my siblings' children. I was student TA for Jurisprudence at the same time I juggled 4 other classes. I did not take the most obviously easy route. Yet I have a number of A+'s on my transcript. I didn't mean for "Law and Society" to be easy--but maybe it was easy for me. I certainly didn't find the other "let's challenge ourselves!" classes easy. I have a hard-won B+ average in my Latin classes, two B+s (despite the fact that I really, realy tried!) in Statistics, and I actually freaked out at had to change to a Pass/No Pass option for Epistemology (although the professor was impressed that a philosophy novice like me managed to wangle a B on the midterm). That was my only bit of strategizing--figuring that a fun class shouldn't punish you when you're a senior with too many credits trying to learn how to question everything.

But yes, I was used to As. I worked pretty hard for them. Contrary to popular belief, it is not that easy to write essays. It's easy if you have some skill at writing--but you still have to read the damn novel. And they assign 10-12 of them a quarter. So it wasn't always easy as an English major--I went to class, read the books, and tried to write well. Most of the time, if I worked hard enough, I succeeded. If I lagged behind on any of those (e.g. got lazy and didn't work hard enough) I was punished, fittingly, with B+'s and B's. I have to say that political science was actually easier for me. And I was a grader for the department, and I know why. I could turn in sloppy finals in which referencing the class texts/lectures was enough to earn an A. Professors appear to accept that the top 20% are the only ones who read/listen. The bottom 60% earn their grades (some of which are abysmal, I would grade 4 sentence finals). My finals for my English classes were at the very least attempts to write cogent, coherent essays that cite to the primary and secondary sources. In poli sci, I didn't have to take that kind of care. I could mention the case name as a parenthetical cite, and tht was enough. But I didn't just stick to these kind of easy finals. I took classes that satisfied the writing requirement--which I satisfied at least four times over. I wrote (admittedly, undergraduate, sophmoric) term papers with such things as footnotes and bibliographies. These were harder. But they taught me a lot more. For one thing, I had to actually read most of the textbooks and research secondary sources just to write the damn paper. For another, I had to learn how to write a different essay.

There is an easy path through college. But it's a lot more interesting to take the more difficult route. I spent my college years juggling school, work, family obligations, and campus volunteering and activism. And in between, I managed to form mentoring relationships with my professors, participate in some protests and vigils, have a social life (a miracle if you know my strict Asian family), fall in love, have my heart broken, and make the best friends of my life. That is what college should be.

And still, it doesn't totally prepare you for law school--particularly if your school has a mandatory curve. My law school just phased out (after I graduated!) our draconian system of 20% As, 60% Bs, and 20% Cs. No professor will say that everyone who got a C deservesone. I think the new system only requires 5-10% Cs, but requires non-seminar courses to have B averages. That's much more fair. It is more difficult than you'd expect (with your high UGPA) to get an A, and way too easy to get a B (learn to be grateful for them rather than crying as I did), and easier than you'd think to get a C. It's not very predictable. I've received high Bs in classes I did not prepare at all for (I owe a debt to commercial outlines, the outline banks from various student organizations, and the kindness of friends who took the class previously) and C+s in courses I worked really, really hard on.

The best thing my charmingly quaint liberal arts and humanities college coursework taught me was that variety in attempts can breed variety in outcomes. By choosing some classes I wasn't used to, I got some grades I wasn't used to. Such was the case in law school, in which the brilliant idea of taking something out of my critical race studies concentration (like Health Care Law and Policy) resulted in a not-so-brilliant grade. But I was exposed to the concept of federalism issues in ERISA preemption--and that is something I treasure.

The bottom line is this: don't expect all A's in law school just because you got them in college. It's a different way of learning, writing, and testing. Don't discredit us state schoolers, particularly from cities you've never heard of. We may not have a certain pedigree, but we can possess passion, breadth of learning, and most importantly, work ethic. And that is valuable too. Finally, try to have a holistic approach to both college and law school. If that is the way you want to be considered by the admissions commmittee, that is the way you should live your life.

And oh, yes: try to have fun if you can. Strategizing and engineering your entire academic career leaves little time for learning and enjoying the best years of your life.