Students who start out in community college rarely end up in law school, but a newly formed initiative in California seeks to change that.
California’s Community Colleges Pathway to Law School initiative, announced earlier this month (May), promises to put talented community college students on the path to some of the best law schools in the state.
It all sounds very official—but Thuy Thi Nguyen, the initiative’s architect, has seen previews of its potential impact on real live people. Nguyen, general counsel for the Peralta Community College District, recalls speaking with a middle-aged woman who had moved to California from another state. The woman had always dreamed of going to law school, but before learning about the initiative, she didn’t know if enrolling in community college would get her anywhere near her goal. “I just feel like I can do it now,” she told Nguyen in tears.
Some 24 community colleges were selected to enter the program. The six participating law schools include both public and private institutions: University of Southern California Gould School of Law, University of San Francisco School of Law, UC Davis School of Law, UC Irvine School of Law, Santa Clara University School of Law, and Loyola Law School.
“I think it’s beyond individual institutions,” says Janice Austin, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at UC Irvine Law. In addition to sending a message that law schools care about recruiting students from community colleges, the initiative “further establishes the importance of not just having that pipeline but also what mechanisms might exist to support those students,” Austin says.
THE DIVERSITY PROBLEM
It’s not that community college students don’t want to go to law school. “Having spoken to a good number of community college students, I can tell you there are many community college students who dream of going to law school, and some of them feel that they may not make it,” Nguyen says. Due to sheer numbers alone, the Golden State is likely full of them: According to Nguyen, community college students in California make up 10% of community college students in the country.
What California community colleges have—and what the state’s population of lawyers lacks—is ethnic diversity. The 2010 census showed that while roughly 60% of the Golden State’s residents come from minority communities, the same can be said for only 21% of state bar members, Nguyen says. Meanwhile, according to the Foundation for California Community Colleges, more than 55% of community college students have diverse ethnic backgrounds.
That’s exactly why integrating community colleges into the law school pipeline seems like an obvious choice. “Our society, our country is based on the rule of law, and so lawyers and judges anchor that rule of law in society,” Nguyen says. She stresses that if we hope to have a healthy democracy, the legal profession has to accurately reflect the demographics of our country.
Plus, the diversity of the community college population extends beyond ethnicity. That population includes people coming right out of high school, people who are still in high school, graduates of four-year institutions, adults who’ve decided to come back to school, and pretty much everyone in between; with that variety of educational experiences comes a variety of perspectives.
A RESOURCE GAP
Nguyen hopes the initiative will chip at the diversity problem by tackling several smaller issues. For one, there’s a huge gap between the number of community college students who want to attend law school and the resources devoted to helping them get there; community colleges focus mostly on helping students transfer into four-year colleges, not graduate programs. For example, many community college students have no idea that you don’t need to major in anything specific to go to law school, Nguyen says.
It doesn’t help that the path from community college to law school is full of transitions. If a student transfers from Los Angeles City College to the University of Southern California, for example, she comes in as a junior. But then, right as she’s adjusting to an entirely new school, she has to prepare to take the LSAT by the winter of her senior year—a matter of months (assuming she plans to go straight from college to law school).
So, how does this tongue-twister of an initiative make all that easier? First, it’s made the participating community colleges identify transferable courses for law school hopefuls. The courses were selected as a part of a study on the skills needed for effective lawyering, Nguyen says.
The 24 community colleges will also provide their students with exposure to law schools in the form of campus visits, classroom sit-ins, et cetera. And it’ll go both ways: Austin notes that the initiative “challenges us to expand our outreach efforts,” since law schools don’t have a history of systematically reaching out to community colleges. Students and faculty members from the six law schools will visit community college campuses to discuss everything from the application process to the actual experience.
Right now, a community college student could Google some of this information, but speaking with people who’ve really lived this stuff? “Those are pretty powerful moments,” Austin says. Community college students will also receive mentorship from working lawyers through the state and local bars.
A WIN-WIN SITUATION
None of this stuff requires an application—and by the same token, community college students who participate won’t be guaranteed admission to any of the six law schools. They will, however, be able to apply to them for free. Plus, students who complete all the law-related courses suggested by their community colleges with be designated Council On Access and Fairness (COAS) Scholars, which could be a positive signal to admissions committees. (COAS, where the initiative originated, describes itself as the state bar’s diversity think tank.)
It’s easy to see how law schools could benefit from all this exposure. Plenty of schools are deeply concerned about enrollment. The fact that they’ll be getting more applicants who’ve actually put some thought into law school—who’ve taken the time to choose appropriate classes, who’ve learned something about the profession from actual lawyers—is the cherry on top.