Are We Ready For Online Law Schools? A Guest Columnist Thinks So

Rachel Higgins’ post below looks at how, exactly, college and graduate program demographics are changing — and perhaps more importantly, why. Rachel is a staff writer for Accredited Online Colleges and focuses most of her attention on minority access to college learning through the Internet.

The Shifting Status Quo in Education: The Changing Demographics of Law Schools, Online Masters Programs and PhD Programs

Decades ago, college campuses were quite homogeneous. The typical student was a white male, usually about 18 years old; he was probably from a privileged family, and more likely than not was attending the same school that his father had. Things are a lot different today, and for the better. Women outnumber men in most university programs, for instance, and there are more minorities than whites in a growing number of programs. In nearly every sense, the American college experience reflects the diverse and ever-growing fabric of our society. Increased access to scholarship money and federal loans mean that more and more people who may not otherwise have been able to afford college are now enrolling in residential programs. Online options have also changed things up dramatically. Those who were traditionally deemed too old or too bound by their careers and schedules to return for a college degree are finding the educational landscape much more open. While these changes have been beneficial for most everyone, minorities and the economically disadvantaged are often the people who see the most positive change.

Academia has long sought to entice minority scholars using affirmative action and other similar programs, but for the first time in years, minorities seem to be flocking to higher education without any specific targeting or prompting. The National Center for Education Statistics reported an 11 percent enrollment hike in degree-granting institutions between 1990 and 2000. During that same period, the agency said, the overall percentage of self-identified white students dropped from 83 percent to 61 percent. “The percentage of Hispanic students rose from 3 percent to 13 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 6 percent, and the percentage of Black students rose from 9 percent to 14 percent,” the report found. Those numbers have been steadily on the rise since then, bolstered in part by the growing ways to get an education. A “degree-granting institution” can be a traditional four-year school, but it can also be online or a hybrid of the two.

Students’ average age has also been slowly shifting upward, thanks to a bevy of graduate programs and targeted “adult education” Internet degree tracks. While college remains most popular with those under 25, more and more adults are looking for ways to earn or complete degrees from home—and more people than ever before are looking into graduate programs, as well. This is true both within the United States and abroad. Economic changes and tightened job markets the world over have made college seem more attractive to many, while migration and immigration patterns have meant that fewer countries are characterized by the homogeneity that may have once defined them.

Law schools in particular have seen a dramatic rise in minority enrollments. According to the American Bar Association, minorities made up nearly a quarter of law school enrollees during the 2011-2012 academic year—by far the highest percentage ever. Of this, a solid 13 percent was African American. Many are quick to point out that, flipped the other way, 75 percent of U.S. law students are white. While true, it is important to keep in mind that the law has traditionally been a very elite societal sector. That a quarter of all law students—and, it can be presumed, a quarter of the future’s newly minted attorneys—are from more diverse backgrounds is certainly a step in the right direction for the profession.

Law schools have traditionally shied away from the online learning platform, which means that the flexibility and lower costs that come with Internet schools are not really driving this enrollment trend. In some cases, the explanation may be as simple as better funding. Minority students are often eligible for scholarships and grants to pay for their legal education. The relative ease of securing federal loans may also play a role.

For many students, though, the real reason for pursuing the law is to make a positive change, whether in the wider world or in their home communities. Students who grew up subject to racial taunting or oppression, who were taught that they were disadvantaged simply because of the color of their skin, or who lived in economic depression often see law school as a way to present an alternative course. “It’s important to remember that I had a lot of opportunities these children don’t have. I can be an example,” Nicole Sandoz, an African-American Cornell Law graduate, said in a Cornell publication about why she chose law school. Sandoz focuses her practice on feminism, minority education, and poverty.

College and graduate school demographics are changing in ways that academics could not have predicted even ten years ago. A lot of this has to do with the Internet and changing technology, but much also has to do with student drive and shifting social mores. To most people, college today is something that is pursued in furtherance of a specific goal. Sometimes that goal is as simple as a steady career, but more and more often it is about the power of education to lead to positive change. As the country sits on the brink of economic crisis, looking for new ways of solving old problems may just be the smartest thing we could do.


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