Fresh-faced law students will be showing up on campus later this month, gunning for top grades.
And their chances of landing a coveted A or A- in those all-important first-year courses are slightly better if their professors are the same race and sex as they are, according to recent research on the so-called “demographic mismatch” in law schools.
A trio of public administration professors examined demographics and grade data from an anonymous private law school ranked in the top 100 by U.S. News & World Report and found that first-year students were 3 percent less likely to get an A or A- when the class was taught by a professor of the opposite sex. Students were 10 percent less likely to receive those high grades when the professor was a different race. And the demographic mismatch effect was most pronounced among nonwhite female students, the researchers found.
The new paper throws cold water on the assumption that law students are immune to what’s known as the role model effect as well as stereotype threat—the phenomenon in which individuals feel anxiety or pressure to defy perceived stereotypes about their social group.
“These results provide novel evidence of the pervasiveness of role-model effects in elite settings and of the graduate-school education production function,” according to the paper, titled “Stereotype Threat, Role Models and Demographic Mismatch in an Elite Professional School Setting.”
A healthy body of research has focused on the effects of demographic mismatch at the elementary, high school and even undergraduate levels, according to Boise State University professor Christopher Birdsall, American University professor Seth Gershenson and Virginia Tech University professor Raymond Zuniga. But relatively little scholarship exists on the topic about graduate programs. Their research was funded by AccessLex Institute—a nonprofit organization that advocates for affordability and access in legal education.
The study, said the researchers, demonstrates that law students aren’t immune to the demographic mismatch phenomenon, despite being in elite institutions.
“Student-instructor demographic mismatch continues to harm the academic performance of even elite law school students, whom we might falsely deem impervious to such threats, given that they are college graduates who successfully navigated the law school application process,” the authors wrote.
While the authors did not reveal the school that provided its administrative data for analysis, they disclosed that it is located in a major city and is among the most racially diverse, with a majority female student body.
After performing a statistical analysis, the authors concluded:
- Having an opposite-sex or different-race professor in the fall also negatively impacted spring semester grades in courses that were two-semester sequences.
- Having a professor of a different race has a larger negative impact on the likelihood of getting an A or A- than does having a professor of the opposite sex.
- Demographic mismatch did not have any impact on a student’s likelihood of receiving a grade lower than a B-.
Interestingly, the authors found that class size can amplify or mute the effects of demographic mismatch. The negative impact of having an opposite-sex professor increased steadily along with class size. Meanwhile, the negative impact of having a professor of a different race was essentially mitigated in both very small classes and the largest classes. The effect was most pronounced in classes of about 60 students. The authors theorize that the personal connection of a small class and the relative anonymity of a large class lessen the effects of having a professor of another race.
Law schools ought not shrug off the effects of demographic mismatch because its impact looks relatively minor on paper, according to the authors.
“While small in magnitude, recall that these are course-specific effects that might add up to nontrivial differences in cumulative GPA that preclude underrepresented students from prestigious internships or alter the class rankings in ways that affect initial job placements and starting salaries,” the paper reads.
So what can law schools do to tamp down on the negative effects of demographic mismanagement on 1L grades?
“These results suggest that diversity in the legal profession, and the status of women and people of color in the legal profession, would be improved by increasing the diversity of law school faculty,” the paper reads.