Philosophers often use LSAT data as a marketing tool to convince students who want to go to law school that they should major in philosophy. But how do we really know studying philosophy is the key to higher scores? Are the high scores really the result of studying philosophy or is there some other cause? In this post, I am going to suggest that privilege and economic class, rather than studying philosophy, better explain philosophy students’ LSAT results. Even if my suspicions are only partly right, it should make philosophers think twice about selling philosophy merely as a means to higher LSAT scores.
Making a causal connection for or against is very difficult (that alone should make us think twice). We don’t have access to either state level LSAT averages or LSAT scores from individual schools. What we have is the average score by majors. I am going to start with 2014 LSAC applicants by major report. Five of the most popular LSAT taking majors are: Political Science, Criminal Justice, Economics, Philosophy, and Sociology. Here are the LSAT results for those five majors:
The National Center for Education Statistics uses a specific code to identify each college major: the Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) code. If you are going to look up graduation numbers for majors, you will use these codes. I don’t know what CIP groups each of these LSAT majors include in the LSAC report, but here are the program codes I am using for my argument: Political Science (CIP code: 38.1001), Criminal Justice (CIP code: 43.0103), Economics, (CIP code: 45.0601), Philosophy (CIP code: 38.0101), and Sociology (CIP Code: 45.1101). Moreover, the Illinois Board of Higher Education website has graduation data for Illinois public and private universities since 2010 that anyone can search here: IBHE search.
Before I give the data, let me point out that Illinois is the fifth largest state in the U.S. by population, so there shouldn’t be a sample size objection. There are 10 public universities (well, 9 now) that offer undergraduate degrees in philosophy and 30 private. In this file, Download LSAT Illinois Pub Private 4 Majors Data, the IBHE data is also sorted by race. (The IBHE site will sort it by race and gender if readers are interested.) Here is a chart of the number of degrees awarded by institution for the five majors over a three year span:
What do we learn form this Illinois data? We know that philosophy graduates are far more likely to attend a private university than a public one. Of the 30 private colleges and universities offering a philosophy major (more than half of the private school philosophy grads came from 5 schools, check the file). Are the students at private universities academically better than those at state universities? Private school students certainly have access to more philosophy, but I have already written about that here and here.
Economics is the only other degree program that has more private graduates than public graduates. Could this be part of why economics students do so well on the LSAT? It’s not like Economic and Philosophy classes are the same--some philosophers think economics is the new astrology.
I claim a better explanation of philosophy and economic student success on the LSAT is that those students are overwhelmingly more privileged than criminal justice students--remember vastly more students graduate with degrees in economics and philosophy from private than public universities. I don’t know that we can separate the effect of privilege on these scores from the impact of the degree itself.
I have come to believe that it is inappropriate to tell students that a particular major will make them better at the LSAT. What makes students better at the LSAT is practicing the LSAT! I now tell all my students who want to go to law school that they need to dedicate real time (and money) to preparing for the LSAT--that means a course to prep for the exam itself. More affluent students in urban areas can do that; poorer students in less populated rural areas cannot. For example, there are no test prep centers within 80 miles of WIU. That means SAT, ACT, GRE, or LSAT prep courses. Access to test prep services is also an unknown, but important variable in all of this, but it all comes down to a certain kind of economic privilege and the ability to afford private school and private lessons to take the standardized tests. I see this lack of privilege in my students every day.
Unfortunately, the LSAC, programs of study, and the affluent have no interest in digging into the data to determine why some majors have much higher averages than others. I think it’s just another case of class over curriculum.