I am the 5%
Until recently, when I read a journal article written by Professor Richard H. Sander, I did not realize how fortunate I am to be at NYU Law. I come from a single-income earner family (my dad was a mail carrier) with five children and grew up in a small farming community three hours from any city in every direction, yet I never felt “disadvantaged” in any sort of way.
Using a large national database, Sander found that 5% of students at the top 10 law schools come from the bottom socioeconomic half of the population, while more than three-quarters come from the richest socioeconomic quartile and more than half of students at these schools from the top tenth of the socioeconomic status (SES) distribution. A young person whose family SES places them in the top 10% of Americans is 24 times more likely to attend a top 20 law school than a person whose family SES places them in the bottom half of the national distribution.
As seen in Sander’s article, which received no fewer than 10 articles in response, affirmative-action attempts to diversify law school student bodies have largely failed to indirectly promote socioeconomic diversity. Based on data of the racial composition of the student population at NYU, roughly one-fourth is non-white. However, Sander’s study shows that these students raise the overall population of law students from the bottom SES quartile only from 4% to 5%. While racial minorities are certainly over-represented in lower SES groups, low-SES minorities are largely not the ones getting into top law schools, or law school in general.
As exemplified by the recent Occupy Wall Street protests that received prominent international media attention, Sander summarizes that across society, although “racial inequality has steadily diminished, economic inequality has steadily increased.”
Despite these statistics, I cannot say my classmates have either made me feel unqualified to be here or treated me as if I were any different than they were. Most have too much class (no pun intended) to do so. At times, nonetheless, I have felt isolated, as many cannot even comprehend our vastly different upbringings. Perhaps I shall convince some of them to come home with me someday to show them from where I came and how I came to make it to where I am today.
Fortunately, every student can find community at NYU Law. I have found mine through leadership and mentoring in student organizations, joining a journal, mocking the law school lifestyle, researching for professors, opting to volunteer over spring break, becoming a Lawyering teaching assistant, and pursuing clinical work, among other avenues. Fellow journal members on the Review of Law and Social Change are not focused on becoming the 1% following graduation, but rather have chosen to forsake that path to enter into careers serving the public; our LRAP program will ultimately forgive their loans. NYU is known, after all, as a “private university in the public service.”
NYU additionally offers an excellent scholarship program designed to give full-tuition scholarships to socioeconomically disadvantaged students, providing mentorship and a support network throughout their careers. As stated earlier, I did not consider myself qualified for this program, so I did not even apply. Nonetheless, NYU provides a safety net through their Dean’s Award program, which considers both merit and financial need.
Sander offers alternative admissions policies to produce significant racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity, but I will leave it to you to consider the viability of these recommendations by reading Sander’s article and the responses it has triggered.
I will leave you with a closing thought, however, that has resonated with me. The Public Interest Law Center requires 1Ls wanting to obtain funding for a public interest summer internship to attend at least four lectures given by highly successful alumni in a variety of fields. A speaker at a lecture I attended last year emphasized that, although some of us may have came from lower-income brackets originally, now that we are at NYU Law, we are all among the privileged and must be aware of our obligation to give back to society.