Student Debt is a raceXgender Issue

Student Debt is a raceXgender Issue

Meera E Deo, JD, PhD
Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School
Director, Law School Survey of Student Engagement
William H Neukom Chair in Diversity & Law, American Bar Foundation

Previous LSSSE publications have highlighted how the escalating costs of law school attendance have changed the landscape of legal education. Our 2020 Retrospective Report (which analyzed fifteen years of data) revealed that while in 2004, only 18% of LSSSE participants expected to owe over $100,000, by 2019 that number had skyrocketed to 39%. In 2015, LSSSE published an Annual Report stating that “the large racial and ethnic wealth disparities in the U.S. have broad implications on student debt trends,” with students of color carrying greater debt burdens than white classmates. More recently, in a publication entitled The Cost of Women’s Success, we found that women are more likely than men to borrow at the highest levels to earn a law degree—with 19% of women owing over $160,000 and 7.9% owing over $200,000 (compared to 14% and 5.5% of men, respectively).

Given the increasing costs of legal education overall, as well as ongoing gender disparities and racial/ethnic disparities, it should be no surprise that there are also marked raceXgender disparities. My previous research has introduced the concept of raceXgender bias, explaining “how the combination of these two particular identity characteristics create not just additive but compound effects in the personal and professional lives of women of color.” Applying that intersectional framework to the context of student debt, it becomes clear that we must think of increasing student loans as a raceXgender issue.

Not only do women as a whole carry greater debt burdens than men, but these gender disparities remain constant within every racial/ethnic group. In other words, women of color shoulder a disproportionate share of the debt burden in legal education. A full 16% of Latinas and 14% of Black women expect to graduate with more than $200,000 in student loans, compared to 12% of Latino men, 7.3% of Black men, and smaller percentages of those from other racial/ethnic groups. No Native American respondents expect to owe over $200,000 to complete their education; however, consistent with gender disparities in other racial/ethnic groups, a full 15% of Native American women carry over $160,000 in student loans, compared to just 7.1% of Native American men.

Legal education must address student loan disparities—not only as a racial justice issue, not only as a critical women’s issue, but also as an issue of raceXgender bias.

Law Student Perceptions of Faculty

The Law Student Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) asks students about the quality of their relationships and interactions with law school faculty as a way of measuring whether students feel valued by others and engaged with the law school experience. As a group, law students tend to have positive perceptions of their instructors. In 2018, 76% of the 17,928 U.S. law students who responded to LSSSE rated their relationships with faculty as at least a “five” on a seven-point scale, where “one” was the perception of faculty as “unavailable, unhelpful, and unsympathetic” and “seven” was the perception of faculty as “available, helpful, and sympathetic.” Male and female students were pleased with their instructors at equal rates, although students of other gender identities were somewhat less satisfied, with only 61% rating their relationships with faculty a “five” or higher.



In 2018, a subset of 7,718 LSSSE respondents received the popular Learning Experiences and Professionalism (LEAP) module, which dives more deeply into students’ perceptions of both the law school community and their own readiness for legal practice. The vast majority of law school students (93%) agree or strongly agree that their instructors “care about my learning and success in law school.” Students in their first year of law school are most likely to strongly agree with this statement (44%), but overall there is not an appreciable drop in students’ sense that their instructors care about their law school experience across class years. Only 6-9% of students in any year of law school disagree or strongly disagree that their instructors care about them.


The LEAP module also asks whether student believe that their “instructors demonstrate sensitivity to diverse backgrounds and perspectives in their interactions with students." Among U.S. law students surveyed in 2018, 89% of students agree or strongly agree with this statement. There is some variation among students of different racial groups: 92% of white students agree or strongly agree that their instructors are sensitive to issues of diversity while only 67% of American Indian or Native American students share this viewpoint. This suggests that disparities still exist, particularly in how students of color perceive faculty attitudes toward diversity and how students from varying backgrounds are treated in the classroom.

A Tribute to Dan Bernstine

Late last week, legal education lost an icon.  Dan Bernstine, president of the Law School Admission Council and member of the LSSSE Advisory Board, passed away at the age of 69.  Over the course of his illustrious career, Dan did it all.  He was a lawyer, a law professor, a law school dean, a university president, and president of LSAC – a position I sometimes call “master of the law admissions universe.”

Unsurprisingly, many tributes discussing Dan’s impact on the people and institutions he encountered have been written over the last few days.  I found the recollections of people who date back to his tenure as president of Portland State University to be particularly telling, given that he left that position almost ten years ago (to join LSAC).  Good people are unforgettable. Dan was such a person.  And while I could walk through Dan’s impressive biography, I really want to reflect on the impact he had on me.
I began my career in legal education in 2002 – and it was not long before I heard Dan’s name for the first time.  This was years before I would actually meet him; a colleague of mine, who was acquainted with him from his time at Howard University, felt that he was someone whom I should seek to emulate in my career.  Needless to say, I was very excited when he became LSAC president about five years later.

My first interaction with him would not come until 2009, when he attended a meeting for an LSAC committee on which I was serving.  I must admit, I was a bit awe-struck.  I had been hearing and reading about him for years.  I couldn’t help but assign a level of heightened significance to that first encounter.  But Dan’s approachable, unpretentious demeanor immediately took the edge off.  We didn’t talk much that day.  But I did take the opportunity to ask for his permission to email him about a career move I was considering at the time.  When I followed up, he actually responded – quickly, I might add (recommending that I not pursue the particular course).   I would have many interactions with Dan over the years.  He was one of the first people I contacted as I sought the opportunity to serve as director of LSSSE.  As always, he was willing to share his time and his insights.  As always, I followed his advice.  It always made sense.

In his role as an advisory board member, Dan was highly supportive of LSSSE’s mission.  For example, he readily agreed to have LSAC serve as co-sponsor of LSSSE’s first symposium, which centered on legal education assessment.  This sponsorship quite literally made the event possible.  At our annual board meetings, he was a source of sound perspective.

If I had to pick one word to describe the impact that Dan had on me, it would be “inspiring.”  It was inspiring to see a man – a black man – ascend to the highest levels of higher education administration.  It was inspiring to observe how he treated people, how he was always approachable, and always willing to share his insights and experiences.  Dan owed me nothing.  There was nothing I could even give him.  Yet, he treated me with a level of openness that profoundly reflected who he was as a person.

There’s an old saying about giving people their “flowers” while they are still living.  The premise is that it is best to tell people how much you appreciate them while they are around to hear it, as opposed to regretting not having done so once they pass away.  I missed that opportunity with Dan.  While I was always effusive in expressing my appreciation of his time and support, I never shared with him the extent to which he inspired me to be excellent, to dream big, and to do good.  For that, I am regretful.  All I can do now is try to live by the example he set.  That strikes me as a wonderful tribute to a life that is truly worthy of emulation.

Thanks, Dan.

Dr. Aaron N. Taylor

LSSSE 2016 Selected Results: Law School Activities

LSSSE 2016 Selected Results

This spring more than 35,000 law students at 72 law schools in the United States and Canada were asked to participate in the LSSSE survey. All JD or LLB students who attended the law school for at least one semester were invited to complete the web-based survey instrument. The average law school response rate in 2016 was 53%.

Figures 1 and 2 provide a comparison of LSSSE 2016 U.S. law schools to all ABA-approved law schools (“National”) with regard to the size of the student body and affiliation. The 2016 LSSSE cohort resembles that of the ABA-approved law schools in terms of size and affiliation.

2016 size and aff

Law School Activities

The LSSSE survey focuses on activities in which students participate—both inside and outside the classroom—that influence their learning and personal and professional development.

Table 1 identifies the most and least frequent activities in which students participated. The “most frequent” activities are those in which more than half of respondents participated “often” or “very often.” The “least frequent” activities are those in which more than 25% of students responded “never,” meaning that at least a quarter of students never participated in that activity during this academic year.

Most freq act 3