Kudos to Shannon Achimalbe and Above the Law for shining a light on the dubious practice of grade deflation at lower-ranked law schools. Achimalbe found some good data to support what those of us in the legal academy have known for years: lower-ranked law schools give lower grades than higher-ranked ones.
Achimalbe identifies two reasons for this practice, neither of which reflects well on the law schools that engage in it:
One is to make it difficult for students to transfer elsewhere. Keeping the average GPA low automatically disqualifies students from schools that have a minimum GPA requirement for transfers. Others will be so demoralized by their low GPAs that they will not even bother to apply. The second reason schools do this is to ensure that students lose any scholarships if they do not meet the minimum GPA requirement.
At Miami Law, I’m required to give at least 5% of my first-year students grades of C- or lower. (This is public information. See page 18 of our Student Handbook.) I’m not required to give any grades of C or C+, but I kind of have to unless I want one or two outlier grades of C- and all the rest B- and above, which makes for a weird distribution. So the result is that in my classes–and, I suspect, most other first-year courses–around 10-20% of the students end up with some kind of C (or a D or F, although those are quite rare). While 10-20% doesn’t sound like a lot, students take something like nine graded first-year classes, meaning each student has nine chances to get one of those low grades. Add it all up and a lot of our students get at least one C or lower in the first year. I would imagine it’s difficult to transfer to a higher-ranked law school with that on your transcript.
I’ve never asked, and nobody has ever told me, why we have that requirement. But the fact that the requirement applies only in the first year suggests that transfer prevention may be behind it.
My only quarrel with Achimalbe’s piece is that she may be underestimating how pervasive this practice is. Miami is not, to my mind, a “lower-ranked” law school. We’re currently ranked 63rd out of roughly 200 ABA-accredited law schools. Pretty much every law school in the country except Harvard, Yale, and Stanford has to worry about students transferring to higher-ranked schools, so that incentive to deflate grades exists not only at the “lower-ranked” schools Achimalbe writes about. I’m less knowledgeable about the scholarship rationale, but I don’t see why that wouldn’t apply everywhere.