The University of Michigan Law School is debuting a program in which a select group of students will be accepted without taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), as applicants normally are required to do.

The Wolverine Scholars Program will be open only to University of Michigan-Ann Arbor undergraduates who have completed at least their junior year and have a 3.8 grade-point average.

Some in the legal community have criticized the change as an attempt to climb up the much-touted law school rankings.

Admissions Dean Sarah Zearfoss said the Wolverine Scholars Program has nothing to do with boosting the school’s ranking or increasing minority enrollment.

Rather, it is an attempt to persuade more Michigan undergrads and in-state residents to enroll. The vast majority of the school’s law students are from out of state.

“There’s a perception among Michigan undergrads that they don’t have a chance of getting in (to the law school),” Zearfoss said. “People end up not

applying because their LSAT score is below the median. They just give up.”

The school has an acceptance rate of 21%.

Additionally, Zearfoss said, the law school wants to spare top Michigan undergrads the stress and cost of taking the LSAT.

Instead of looking at LSAT scores, admissions officials will closely examine the academic records of the Wolverine Scholars Program applicants. They will take into considerations factors such as hours the students work, whether they come from an “educationally deprived” background and whether they are responsible for the primary care of family members.

The most unusual criteria for the program is that applicants must not take the LSAT. That element has raised a few eyebrows.

Several legal bloggers have suggested that the new program will help Michigan improve its position on the annual U.S. News & World Report law school rankings. That’s because the rankings are based, in part, on the median LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages of admitted students.

Under the new program, Michigan could theoretically accept a student with a high grade-point average who might have performed poorly on the LSAT, thus helping its ranking.

Zearfoss said the school’s ranking won’t be affected because it likely will admit only five and no more than 10 applicants from the program into a

class of 360.

“It couldn’t possibly have any real impact on our ranking,” she said.

She said that administrators reviewed grade data from previous Michigan undergraduates who went on to the law school. They found that students with grade-point averages of 3.8 and above performed well in law school classes. Thus, they set the grade-point average cutoff at 3.8.

The LSAT is not required for admissions under American Bar Association law school accreditation standards. However, the standards do require schools to make applicants take a “valid and reliable test.”

Zearfoss said that SAT and ACT scores will fulfill the testing requirement for the Wolverine Scholars Program applicants.

It remains to be seen whether other law schools will implement similar programs.

Northwestern University Law School Dean David Van Zandt said his school isn’t looking at admitting students who haven’t taken standardized tests, although that school offers certain students choices. For example, some students in the accelerated J.D. program may elect to take either the LSAT or the GMAT, he said.

“We like to have the tests,” he said. “We look at undergraduate GPAs as well, but they are all over the place.”

Van Zandt declined to comment on the school rankings issue, but said that Michigan undergraduates with 3.8 grade-point averages are likely qualified for law school.

“That’s a fairly good proxy for the LSAT,” he said.

Zearfoss said that the University of Michigan Law School will start accepting applications for the Wolverine Scholars Program in May 2009, for admission in the 2010 school year. Students will know whether they are accepted by late July.

That way, students who aren’t accepted will have time to take the LSAT and apply to other schools, Zearfoss said.