Paul L. Caron

Monday, July 23, 2018

Volokh: The Mismatch Effect — A Danger for Students of All Races

Eugene Volokh (UCLA), The Mismatch Effect: A Danger for Students of All Races:

Say that you apply to many schools, including some where other students have much better predictors (chiefly test scores and grades from earlier institutions) than you. And you get in! Maybe it was affirmative action (whether based on race, socioeconomic status, or something else), maybe it was a preference because your relatives had gone to the same school, maybe it was something in your admission essay, maybe it was just luck. Either way, you're thrilled.

Might you have reason to be less thrilled, and actually not want to go to this highly ranked school? (Conversely, might the school reconsider its policy that led you to be let in?) If the predictors are actually reasonable predictors (and apparently grades and test scores tend to be reasonable predictors), then you can expect you'll end up lower in the class at the new school than you might be at some other school, precisely because the other students are better than you. The advantage of having a more prestigious degree might be counteracted by the disadvantage of having a less prestigious class rank. But might you end up getting a worse education, being less likely to graduate, and being less likely to pass any professional licensing exams (such as the bar) that you might be expecting to take?

That's the debate about the "mismatch effect," which I've followed over the years (though from a distance); it has mostly focused on whether race-based affirmative action causes problems (such as lower black bar passage rates) as a result of this effect, but it can also be relevant to many students of all races. I was first exposed to it because of the work of my UCLA School of Law colleague Rick Sander, and Robert Steinbuch at Arkansas / Little Rock has been working in it as well; Rob has been kind enough to pass along these thoughts on the subject:

As much as we have discussed the "mismatch effect" — what takes place when students with academic credentials noticeably lower than their peers learn less as a consequence of that intellectual estrangement -- I believe that we still haven't fully appreciated its negative consequences. We know that mismatched law-school graduates, on average, fare far worse on the bar exam than their non-mismatched peers. And we've generally thought of the harmful mismatch effect as impacting racial minorities, because they're often admitted with dramatically lower standardized-test scores than their peers. But the negative effects of mismatch on non-minorities have been overlooked: this second set of harms often remains hidden because these students are only a small percentage of a relatively large demographic group. Nonetheless, we should consider them as well when we analyze the scope of the mismatch problem.

[I.] Measuring "Low" LSAT Scores
No measurement of intelligence and skill is perfect, but standardized exams increasingly do a good job. So, in 2018, it should be unsurprising that law-school graduates with low Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores generally perform far more poorly on bar exams than those with high scores. What constitutes a "low" score, though, requires some discussion.

LSAT scores range from 120 to 180. The consumer-advocacy group Law School Transparency says that law-school applicants with LSAT scores below 150 are engaging in a perilous endeavor: a score of 147 to 149 presents a high risk for bar failure; a score of 145 to 146, a very high risk; and a score under 144, an extreme risk. Therefore, students with an LSAT score of, say, 149 will on average perform less well on the bar exam than students with, say, 165 — all else being equal.

Beyond this easy to apply static view is a more dynamic model that posits that students' relative LSAT scores as compared with those of their law-school classmates is a reliable predictor of bar passage -- perhaps even more reliable than absolute LSAT scores. This mismatch theory posits that students with, say, a 155 will perform differently depending on where in the class they fall (i.e., how selective a law school they attend). In particular, the further students are below the bulk of the class, the more they suffer from "fish out of water" syndrome — i.e., the more they're "mismatched." And that estrangement itself negatively affects bar performance. 

[II.] Mismatch at UALR
Analysis of a large dataset containing information on graduates from the law school at which I teach, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Bowen School of Law, demonstrates that LSAT scores of students enrolled at the school (1) solidly predicted bar passage, and (2) varied significantly in relation to ethnicity.

Although color-blind admissions should produce roughly 25 percent of both Whites and African Americans in each LSAT-score quartile, over two-thirds of graduating African Americans were admitted with LSAT scores in the bottom quartile, as contrasted with only 16 percent for White students. (For more details, see the recent article I coauthored: Steinbuch and Love, Color-Blind-Spot: The Intersection of Freedom of Information Law and Affirmative Action in Law School Admissions, 20 Tex. Rev. L. & Pol. 1 (2016)). Although almost exactly a quarter of White students were admitted in the top quartile of LSAT scores (as expected), remarkably, only one percent of enrolled African Americans fell into the top quartile of LSAT scores. Predictably, this led to dramatic differences in bar passage: 80 percent of Whites passed the bar (the first time), while only 60 percent of African Americans did.

Given that the African-American cohort in our dataset on average had much lower LSAT scores than the bulk of the student body, it's fair to conclude that this cohort overall was mismatched. This profile dominated because affirmative-action considerations are designed to consider factors beyond traditional credentials and explains why debates on how to deal with poor bar-passage rates often focus on race-based admissions. However, the ensuing discussion often misses that, while on average Whites will not be mismatched because they have such a large population — putting many at or above the mean of the class, the number of Whites who are mismatched could easily equal or exceed that of any other racial group. ...

[IV.] How Disclosure Might Shrink Mismatch's Negative Consequences
[W]hat's the solution to poor bar-passage rates that result from schools consciously admitting mismatched students of all races? Some suggest that newly conceived remedial programs can offset the considerable headwinds faced by LSAT-score-impaired students. Others recommend cabining the now-overwhelming influence of race in admissions, so that it returns to its once-envisioned role as a tie-breaker.

As advocates battle over these competing approaches, I offer a modest proposal: informing students of their individual likelihood of success, as predicted with some strength by LSAT scores. With little effort, law schools could disclose their individual bar-passage rates broken down by LSAT scores on an annual basis. This would permit far more meaningful decision-making by students: it would allow prospective students to have a much better sense of where they stand before they attend law school.

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"remarkably, only one percent of enrolled African Americans fell into the top quartile of LSAT scores. Predictably, this led to dramatic differences in bar passage: 80 percent of Whites passed the bar (the first time), while only 60 percent of African Americans did."

Doesn't this statistic back up Amy Wax?

Posted by: Anon | Jul 23, 2018 12:34:00 PM

Getting into a top school thanks in part to political influence and then not graduating top of the class seems to have worked out okay for some people.

Posted by: Mismatch to the Whitehouse | Jul 23, 2018 12:52:17 PM

We can all agree that those born into circumstances of exceptional influence and resources are apt do just fine in life regardless of academic performance or record. In a society that places too much value on credentials (that is just my opinion) Volokh's penultimate point might well be mistaken, but your examples are not a rebuttal.

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Jul 24, 2018 4:43:41 AM

There's quite a bit of info on predictors of long term bar pass rate:

Linda F. Wightman, LSAC National Longitudinal Bar Passage Study. LSAC Research Report Series., (1998),

Most people eventually pass, and there are many factors besides LSAT scores that play a role. Providing a breakdown just by LSAT is a bit overly simplistic, and it doesn't give as accurate a prediction as a multivariate model.

But in any case, for most groups we are talking >80% chance of eventual bar passage (>90% for whites and asians), so there's not much of a "Danger."

Posted by: Bar pass | Jul 25, 2018 10:28:08 AM