How to Con Black Law Students: A Case Study

This month, Bethune-Cookman, a historically black university in Daytona Beach, Fla., announced an “affiliation” deal with Arizona Summit Law School, a for-profit institution in Phoenix. A joint scholarship program will send Bethune-Cookman students and students from other historically black colleges to the law school. Other programs, including intensive LSAT prep classes, have been announced as part of the deal.

Bethune-Cookman doesn’t have a law school, so it makes sense that it would want to partner with an accredited institution. But there’s a problem: Arizona Summit, formerly known as the Phoenix School of Law, may be accredited, but only 25 percent of its graduates passed the Arizona bar exam on their first try last year.

That’s an embarrassing result for any school. To compare, the law school at Arizona State posted a 77 percent pass rate for first-time test takers of the same bar. Statewide, 64 percent of first-time test takers passed. In other words, Arizona Summit’s results weren’t even in the ballpark of respectability.

Arizona Summit can’t blame the aptitude of its students for its low bar passage rate. The median LSAT score at Arizona Summit is 143, which is on the low end, but about the same as the median score at Florida A&M University College of Law. Still, over half of Florida A&M law school graduates passed the Florida bar last summer. And Florida A&M charges about $14,000 in yearly in-state tuition, a fraction of the cost of Arizona Summit, which charges about $45,000 in tuition and fees per year. That doesn’t include the cost for Bethune-Cookman students to move from Florida to Phoenix.

So why is this an appropriate affiliation deal? Edison Jackson, the president of Bethune-Cookman, said of Arizona Summit, “Together, we aim to be a leading force in disrupting a legacy of exclusion that has persisted into the 21st century.” Officials from both schools claim that their goal is to increase “diversity” in legal education.

But encouraging African-American students to attend Arizona Summit will not help them achieve their goals. It will hobble them. Going to a law school that doesn’t prepare most of its students to pass the bar is not an “opportunity,” unless “opportunity” means being saddled with debt that you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to pay back.

For-profit schools like Arizona Summit prey on students with high aspirations but little knowledge about how the postgraduate system really works. Many black students aren’t just the first people in their families to go to graduate school — they are the only people they know in the game. Information passed down from family, friends or mentors is hard to get when you don’t have people in your life who have been there. Too many aspiring black students are trying to piece together education plans based on career fairs and Google searches.

And it shows. African-Americans make up the majority of graduate students at for-profit institutions. Because graduate students are likely to finance their education with loans on top of what they already owe for college — and graduate students can take out much more in loans than undergraduates — many black students become saddled with tremendous amounts of debt as they collect for-profit degrees that can’t help them achieve their goals.

I was the first person in my family to go to law school, but I went to Harvard for undergrad. Harvard teaches you how to play the game.

While I was an undergraduate, Harvard gave me and every other pre-law student a copy of the “grids.” This is a spreadsheet that tracks the admission outcome of every Harvard student who applied to any law school over the previous three years. It is anonymized but shows each person’s gender, race, G.P.A. and LSAT score, sorted by the schools they applied to and whether or not they got in.

In other words, long before I sat down for my first LSAT prep session, I knew precisely the LSAT score I needed to get in order to go to the schools I wanted. Do you realize how powerful this information was?

Getting into professional schools like law and medicine is not art — it’s math. Here’s a formula: G.P.A. x Test Score / Demographics = Admission Decision. That formula is not bulletproof; it’s possible to quirk one’s way into a particular school. But in broad strokes, the grids reveal exactly what numbers each student needs to get into the law schools he or she desires.

When I applied, I didn’t randomly send out applications and hope for the best. I was studying for a specific score, to get into specific schools, following the specific plan of action I mapped out with my pre-law advisers.

Is Bethune-Cookman compiling the grids and disseminating that information to pre-law students?

I’m forced to conclude that this deal isn’t about diversity in legal education, for either institution. Arizona Summit wants legitimacy, and Bethune-Cookman needs to expand its geographic footprint.

Arizona Summit is owned by the InfiLaw company, which owns three law schools, including one in Florida. Bethune-Cookman didn’t go with the local for-profit diploma mill because it’s trying to market itself to students who live west of the Mississippi. It shouldn’t be aligning itself with an out-of-state law school purely for marketing purposes.

The best thing any historically black college could do to “disrupt” exclusionary legacies in legal education would be to arm its students with the very information from which they have been excluded, information that would help them get into good schools — or at least keep them out of predatory ones. Anything less is a hustle.