Take two students, otherwise “equal” but with different economic backgrounds: The student who can afford hours of private tutoring or a fancy prep class will obviously score better on the test, increasing their chances of admission over their otherwise equal peer.
Harvard Law School recently announced that it will accept GRE scores from applicants, allowing them to bypass the LSAT. This action will enhance the socioeconomic diversity of law school students by making the law school admissions process more about who deserves to get in, not who can afford pricey LSAT prep courses.
In a pilot program starting in the Fall of 2017, Harvard Law School will allow applicants to submit results from either the GRE or the LSAT. The change comes a year after the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law made the same decision, sparking debate among legal professionals. Around 150 law school deans have supported the change, marking a shift in the field, which has long favored the LSAT as a major component of the application process.
The LSAT itself may be an excellent measure of a student’s readiness for law school, but the high cost of the exam and prep courses causes it to inherently favor wealthier students. After registering for the exam and paying to submit scores to schools, the LSAT costs a grand total of $355, compared to a registration fee of $205 and an additional $27 per school to submit scores for the GRE.
As a political science major at USC, I am surrounded by students who plan on applying to law school. In class, I hear students casually exchange names of expensive tutors and top-of-the-line prep courses. I have friends who have taken time off school and their jobs to specifically study for the LSAT, presumably living solely off their parents’ income during this time period.
While this may be a viable option for some, this culture excludes people who cannot afford the high price of prep courses, taking a break from work or even taking the LSAT more than once, and they suffer lower scores because of it. Spending obscene amounts of money on prep courses and tutors has become the norm, but it doesn’t have to be. Harvard’s decision shows that schools are starting to recognize the flaws with the LSAT system.
Of course, similar flaws surround the GRE and other standardized tests. Some students will always be able to afford the relevant prep courses and others won’t. But at the very least, Harvard’s decision means that students will only need to pay for one expensive test. Many students already take the GRE as they consider graduate programs, or attend graduate school before applying to law school. Allowing students to submit these scores with their law school applications will reduce the amount of money they spend on these standardized tests.
In addition to improving socioeconomic diversity, scaling back the emphasis on LSAT scores also could increase the diversity of educational backgrounds in the legal profession. Because the GRE is used for admissions to a variety of graduate programs, students from fields such as science and engineering can easily use their scores to apply. In turn, this will help expand the legal profession, since lawyers themselves deal with the law across a wide spectrum of fields.
While the LSAT was created to measure skills needed for law school, this specificity is precisely what makes it so economically divisive. Because the types of questions aren’t those that would normally be found in school, students need to go out of their way to learn how to answer LSAT questions, hence the need for preparation. Meanwhile, the GRE measures “skills that have been developed over a long period of time,” allowing students who had minimal resources for test prep to utilize the skills they naturally developed during their undergraduate career. The point remains that, under the current system, those who best display these law school-specific skills are frequently those who were simply able to spend the most time and money obtaining them.
Allowing students to submit GRE scores instead of LSAT scores may not be a perfect solution to the flaws with the LSAT. However, this is exactly why the Harvard pilot program is important. It could increase diversity in the legal field, and if the pilot is successful, other law schools should follow suit.
Erin Rode is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism and political science. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.