Podcast: Will Medians Stay As High This Law School Admissions Cycle?

In this episode, Mike gives his thoughts on whether law schools will be able to maintain their historically high LSAT/GPA medians after the 2022-2023 admissions cycle.

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Note: You may notice that the numbers we cite sometimes vary slightly from the volume data that LSAC publishes. This is because LSAC reports only an applicant's ultimate high LSAT score, even if they didn't achieve that score until months or even years after the date in question. For example, if someone applied in 2021-2022 with a 160, then retook the LSAT the following fall and scored a 170 to reapply for 2022-2023, LSAC's data would include them as an applicant with a 170 even in the 2021-2022 data. To avoid this effect, we record applicant volume daily in real-time so that we can later compare to the data as it actually was on that date, rather than factoring in any new LSAT scores that were achieved after that date.

Full transcript:

Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. Today I'm answering a question we've received a number of times, rightfully so. We ask it of ourselves too, law schools ask it, which: are medians—which were ridiculously high last year—are they going to stay as high this year? And the answer is both interesting and a little bit complicated.

The interesting part is, if you had asked me this question—and people have asked me this question—about two months ago, I would have said there's no way that medians are going to stay as high. So the main reason for that is, we knew two months ago that things were looking down as far as the number of applicants. Often LSAC for example will message something like, “It's a strong cycle, the applications are up.” That’s actually a meaningless number in admissions. When you're a baby Dean of Admission, you don't understand it for your first couple of months, but then after a few months you realize applications are a reflection of maybe how many people you'll be taking off the wait list or how many admits you'll be making, but they're not a reflection of how competitive the cycle is. As far as cycle competitiveness, we knew a couple of months ago things were going to be down, and they were. They were down I think early on around 12%, we predicted that by the end of the cycle it was going to be down 1% to 5%, and that's where it looks like it's going to be. We’re at -4.1% applicants (again the number that matters) right now.

Two months ago, looking at the data, knowing that we'd be around -1% to -5% and knowing that schools just could not decrease their class sizes anymore—they decreased their class sizes significantly last year. Let me just double click on why that matters. Law schools, unlike many universities, particularly elite universities, are enrollment, tuition driven. They pay their faculty, they pay their staff, they turn their lights on, they pay merit aid out of tuition. There's really only one reason to lower your class size, and I'll just be candid. It's for U.S. News and World Report rankings. The smaller your class size, the easier it is to bring in higher LSAT, higher GPA, be more selective, easier it is to place students downstream, the higher your bar passage rate is. The U.S. News and World Report margins that matter hit that class size. I haven't seen a law school—and I've been on budget committees of law schools—decrease their class size significantly two years in a row. For that reason: you have to bring in tuition money.

So these are all-time high medians. 59 law schools last year increased both their median LSAT and median GPA. 142 schools increased their median GPA last year. 75 schools increased their median LSAT last year. So we're talking about crazy, crazy numbers last year. So why have I changed a little bit? I mean, it's interesting because as I like to say (it's not my quote), prediction is difficult—especially when it involves the future. So maybe what I was thinking two months ago was going to hold true, and there's no possible way you can see the same record high numbers. I mean, it's like, is it likely that someone who hits 400 in baseball once in their career is going to hit 400 the next year? No, that's not likely. Maybe that's a good analogy; maybe that's a poor analogy.

Here's the problem. I'm going to bifurcate the two groups of schools… schools top 14—we’ll call it top 17—schools shooting for LSAT scores in the 170s. When you're looking at those schools, the bubble at the top for LSAT scores 170 to 180, both proportionately and in raw numbers—we’ll explain how this happens in writing as part of this podcast, but we screenshot the data every day and we compute our scores differently and we think more accurately than the way LSAC computes their scores. I'm sure they think they do it more accurately. We'll explain why we think ours is a better reflection of the current cycle.

When we look at our data both proportionally and in aggregate numbers, scores 170 to 180 are actually up. Now that's really fascinating. No one thought this bubble would stay where it is. There's theories out there, and maybe I'll do a podcast with an expert like Dave Killoran or a psychometrician on why the bubble has stayed. It shouldn't, right? It's been an organic bell curve for many years, and this top bubble in theory should have returned to normality, and it hasn't. There's lots of theories out there, and let me be the first to say I don't know. There's theories that people are studying more, have more downtime to study, better study methods, better study protocols. There's more conspiratorial theories that others have espoused, and again I don't know if this is true, I do know that LSAC is a money-driven machine that cares deeply about profit, so they do things like score preview and charge people for the profit. When people retake the LSAT—retakes are up, and they're up over a ridiculous amount last year—every retake is more money for LSAC. So for them to keep the scores at the top high makes them more money. Now again, I don't want to say that I know for a fact or even suspect LSAC is doing this. My point being is there's a lot of theories on why the bubble hasn't gone down, but we don't know. Maybe LSAC could chime in and explain to us in a non-spin kind of way why that is.

So because of that high LSAT bubble at the top and the GPA inflation, if you saw our graph over the last two years, GPA inflation has taken off—the graph’s on our blog. If you found this podcast on our blog, it's right below it. GPA inflation is still going to be up. It looks like LSAT inflation is still going to be up. And if the schools at the top don't have to increase their class sizes significantly, then you actually could see a scenario where those schools have ridiculously high medians.

Outside of that range, I think you're going to see medians drop. I think, at the macro level, when you look at all schools, you're going to see more negatives and zeros than you're going to believe, relative to the high mark. So you start getting outside that very top range, and these schools dropped their class sizes so much last year and pulled out all the stops financially and in class size. By financially, I mean merit aid and class size to bring in record classes. They can't do that year after year. Again, there's that bifurcation. Elite schools maybe just as competitive medians outside that range, very likely not as competitive medians.

In summary: maybe as competitive, maybe at the very elite schools, highly likely not as competitive at the—we'll call it 17, 18—I say these numbers and some schools are going to get mad at me—range and then all other schools, not as competitive medians. And there is my dog. So we're going to end it on that note, that is low-key my dog wishing everyone a happy new year, and me too. This was Mike Spivey, the Spivey Consulting Group.