Monday, September 29, 2003

Undergrad Schools

"Want to go to Harvard Law?" That's the title of this interesting article from the Wall Street Journal on which colleges do best at placing their students in top-notch grad schools. I was particularly interested in what the article had to say about state schools:
But what about state schools? Parents have always fretted over whether sending kids to less-expensive schools would hurt their postgraduate chances. According to our survey, only Michigan made the top 30, and that's with the help of Michigan Law, one of our 15 elites, taking more than five dozen Wolverines in this fall's class. Among the other well-known names, Virginia was 33, Berkeley came in at 41 and UCLA was 61. "They seem a little reluctant to visit," says advisor Glenn Cummings at the University of Virginia, who says three top law schools he invited to come meet students this year never got back to him.

State schools argue that students can improve their chances by enrolling in their honors programs, the "college within a college" option at many top public institutions. Indeed, grad-school officials said beefier course lineups and more rigorous requirements at these honors programs can score points on an application. (Not always: One Harvard Med official told us flat out, "Honors doesn't matter that much to me.") In many cases, the honors colleges don't track how their kids do, though that's starting to change as families wake up to the feeder-school issue. The University of Washington (No. 142) plans to start, partly in response to parent concerns.

Still, even if most people don't realize it, there's a bias in favor of some schools that is practically built into the system. At law schools, there's a number called the LCM -- the LSAT College Mean, which tries to identify the students attending the "tougher" colleges (usually Ivies and small liberal-arts schools). With each new group of applicants, it evaluates schools based on their average LSAT test scores; someone with so-so grades from a high-LCM school can wind up looking better than a 4.0 student at a lesser college. Besides, many admissions officers are Ivy alums themselves, says Mark Meyerrose at Admissions Consultants Inc. "They're biased toward elitist institutions because that's where they went to school," he says.
I do suspect that there's a bias against state schools at places like Harvard Law. I graduated from the University of Georgia with a 4.0 GPA and a 179 LSAT score, well into the 99.9th percentile. But Harvard initially put me on the "Hold" list for several weeks, meaning that they weren't sure whether to admit me or not. I got my admissions letter from Harvard very late in the process, after I had already sent a deposit to another school. I'm still a bit miffed by that, given how strapped for money I was at the time.

I suspect, though I can't prove, that someone at Harvard Law must have been at least a little bit biased against my state school background. Which I find richly ironic, given that my experience in the Honors program at the University of Georgia was more intellectually stimulating than my experience at Harvard Law, and my Honors classmates and friends were -- on average -- more intellectually curious, more open-minded, and more interested in discussing ideas than were my Harvard Law classmates. (Just to be clear: I'm comparing the average student at HLS with the average Honors student at Georgia. There are lots of exceptions on both sides, to be sure, and a huge amount of overlap.)

I'll never forget the time when my best friend from college came up to visit me at Harvard. He was a recreational therapy major at Georgia, and had no training in law whatsoever. He wanted to see what a Harvard Law class was like, so I took him to my Fed Courts class (with Prof. Richard Fallon). Fed Courts is known as one of the most difficult classes in law school, by the way, and we were in the middle of the semester, so I thought that there was no way my friend would get anything out of the class.

But I was in for a surprise. At one point, a student towards the front of the classroom made a comment that showed he had misinterpreted a case. I recognized the error -- and so did my friend. He leaned over to me and whispered a couple of sentences that refuted the student's comment. I was floored that my friend, who had never read a case or been inside a law classroom before, could have a better grasp of Fed Courts doctrines than a Harvard 3L.

But I should have known better -- my friend was lightning quick at picking up ideas and running with them, even if on paper he didn't have the statistics or resume of a typical Harvard Law student. I wish the people on the admissions committee could have taken note of that.


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