Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Robin Hood, in Reverse: How Law School Scholarships Compound Inequality

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Robin Hood, in Reverse: How Law School Scholarships Compound Inequality

Article excerpt


The United States is a vastly unequal society. Racial inequality is its hallmark. On practically every major indicator, racial and related socioeconomic disparities exist. This stamp of division is unmistakable and seemingly indelible. As one group of researchers observed:

Across a broad range of economic and demographic indicators, the data paint a largely depressing picture. Five decades past the era of legal segregation, a chasm remains between black and white Americans - and in some important respects it's as wide as ever.1

Racial and socioeconomic inequalities manifest most prominently as widening wealth inequality. According to Pew Research Center data, in 2013, the wealthiest families had a median net worth almost seventy times larger than the poorest families-the largest disparity in thirty years.2 The net worth of the median white household went from ten times the size of the median black household in 2007 to thirteen times just six years later.3 The white-Latino/a disparity grew from eight times to ten times during the same period.4 Wealth is "the buried fault line of the American social system,"5 a system built upon inequality.

Inequality is an unpopular notion,6 but it is tolerated as an unavoidable and largely unassailable reflection of varying talents and efforts.7 This belief is the crux of American achievement ideology. Everyone gets what she deserves. The "haves" are lauded for their talents and "vision;"8 the "have-nots" are viewed in less flattering lights.9 Moreover, these value-laden perceptions of success and failure are often internalized.10 To use a common baseball analogy, individuals born on third base think they hit a homerun when they attain success, while those not even allowed an at-bat fault themselves for not rounding the bases. The dogma of achievement ideology crowds out discussions of structural factors that forestall equal opportunity.11 The outcome is an inequitable meritocracy that is nonetheless presumed to be a just means of selecting society's winners and losers.

While education has long been heralded as the "great equalizer,"12 schools are primary conduits of inequality. Educational opportunity is strongly associated with background factors, such as wealth and race. Individuals from wealthier families tend to have access to the best educational opportunities and tend to benefit from the most generous public and private educational investments.13 Black and Latino/a students are more likely to attend inadequate, under-resourced schools,14 and are more likely to be targets of harsh discipline practices that stunt their educational (and social) development.15 In the end, schools contribute to the reproduction and intensification of inequality, rather than serve as the engines of social mobility they are held out to be.16

Higher education outcomes represent a denouement, of sorts, of the social reproduction process. Trends related to college-going, college choice, and college attainment are dictated by economic and educational inequities. In 2013, about 80% of high-income students enrolled in college immediately after completing high school, compared to less than half of low-income students.17 Fifty-seven percent of black students attended college immediately after high school, compared to 67% of white students.18 Much of these disparities is attributable to different levels of academic preparation-a direct reflection of race- and classbased differences in educational opportunity. But socioeconomic disparities in college-going persist even after controlling for ability.19

Students who are low-income, black, or Latino/a are more likely to attend less selective and less well-endowed colleges and universities.20 These schools tend to have lower graduation rates and are less able to offer the lucrative financial aid packages and expansive support services that low-income students disproportionately need.21 In choosing colleges, many researchers have found that low-income students tend to "undermatch"-or attend schools that are less selective than other schools they could have attended. …

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