A Compass For Success: A New Direction for Academic Support Programs

AuthorCynthia Schmidt/Ann L. Iijima
PositionAssociate Faculty, University of Phoenix/Professor of Law

Page 651

    Cynthia Schmidt, Associate Faculty, University of Phoenix, Las Vegas Campus, and Ann L. Iijima, Professor of Law, William Mitchell College of Law. The authors would like to thank their research assistants, Sara Reisdorf, Malinda Schmiechen, and Susan Thill. They also would like to thank William Mitchell College of Law staff members Meg Daniel, Gene Gjerdingen, Cal Bonde, Jim Stevens, and Maddie Morrisey for their help gathering and organizing the data. They also would like to thank the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) for funding the study. Portions of this article were submitted to LSAC as a grant report. The opinions and conclusions contained in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of LSAC.

The use of academic support programs (ASPs) has spread rapidly through law schools;1 today, virtually all law schools have such programs.2Although law schools have experimented with these programs for nearly twenty-five years, there is little consensus regarding what type of program is the most effective.

Beginning in 2000, William Mitchell College of Law (William Mitchell) fundamentally changed its approach to academic support, moving from a voluntary to a mandatory program, working with "at-risk" instead of "non-traditional" students, and coordinating the teaching of skills with one of the students' doctrinal courses. In 2003, the authors began an empirical study to determine whether the program was successful.

Section I of this article discusses the development and evaluation of ASPs; Section II describes Compass I (Compass), William Mitchell's ASP for first-year students; Section III describes an empirical study de-Page 652signed to assess the effectiveness of Compass; and Section IV suggests a new direction for law school ASPs.

I ASP Development And Evaluation
A ASP Development

Academic support programs have evolved through two major phases, each lasting over fifty years. In the first phase, starting as early as the late 1800s, colleges offered students considered academically at-risk academic support focused on reading and learning skills.3These programs became more prevalent by the 1930s.4In the 1950s and 1960s, two new elements appeared. First, some undergraduate ASPs began to focus on students' emotional needs, offering individual and group counseling.5Second, as the ASPs shifted focus from the purely academic to both the academic and emotional needs of the students, they also shifted to a new target population: students of color.6

At about the same time, law schools also began offering ASPs.7Faced at the outset with the dual purposes of ASPs (academic and emotional support) and the dual target populations (students of color and students considered at-risk academically),8law schools generally struck a balance in favor of serving the academic and emotional needs of minority students.9Page 653

Other than the general consensus on the overarching purposes of ASPs, however, there has been little agreement on the form ASPs should take. Most ASPs are designed to help students become acclimated to the demands and methods of law school study and are typically offered prior to or during the first year of law school.10The structure of these courses varies greatly, however. Some programs focus on legal writing and research, and some even offer a special section of the regular research and writing courses for ASP students.11Many offer tutoring on legal doctrine by upper-level students, staff, or professors,12or focus on legal analysis, particularly the skills needed for writing essay examinations.13

B ASP Evaluation

Historically, the lack of reliable ASP evaluation has been a problem at both the undergraduate and law school levels. At the undergraduate level, many "program evaluations are subjective and anecdotal and thus of little scientific value."14As empirical tools were introduced into the evaluation processes, shortcomings in design and interpretation rendered the evaluations' conclusions somewhat questionable.15When the evaluation design and interpretation improved, the evaluations often failed to demonstrate that the ASPs had a positive impact on students'

More recently, there has been an apparent movement to expand ASPs to serve students deemed "at-risk" academically, regardless of their ethnic background. See Law Sch. Admission Council, An Introduction to Academic Assistance Programs 1 (1992) (on file with William Mitchell College of Law Library). The Supreme Court's decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978), and subsequent affirmative action cases may have catalyzed this movement by striking down programs which were strictly race-based. See Garfield, supra note 7, at 491 (citing Hopwood v. Texas, 78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir.), cert, denied, 518 U.S. 1033 (1996. This change of focus to at-risk students, however, may have been more formalitic than functional; it is likely that the majority of ASPs continued to focus their efforts on minority students. See, e.g., Knaplund & Sander, supra note 1, at 168.Page 654 academic performance.16More recently, empirical studies that evaluated the effectiveness of undergraduate ASPs based on persistence rates or on subsequent grade point averages (GPAs)17have demonstrated "that some undergraduate academic counseling programs have been at least somewhat effective."18

The evaluation of law school ASPs has been similar. Although much has been written about the need for and design of academic support programs, very few programs have been evaluated empirically.19Although there have been many favorable reports, most have been based on anecdotal evidence.20

A number of factors contribute to the lack of empirical data regarding law school ASPs.

It is unlikely that law schools will have the resources necessary to conduct objective academic assistance program evaluations that will withstand the critique of social scientists. Classic objective evaluation methodologies that include random sampling and the establishment of experimental and control groups do not lend themselves to the realities faced by law schools interested in evaluating their academic assistance efforts.21Page 655

Moreover, "most legal educators themselves lack the training and experience to engage in the kind of sophisticated social science research that would generate valid empirical data in this context."22

Finally, identifying a valid control group in this context is problematic:

The only way to create valid controls in this context is to divide randomly all high risk and probationary students in a particular institution into two separate groups. Only one of those groups can be invited to receive counseling. The group that was not invited becomes the control. Serious ethical considerations arise when researchers create controls in this manner. Substantial evidence exists that at least some academic improvement occurs when students receive academic counseling. Indeed, that point no longer is in dispute. This creates the ethical problem. When significant evidence already exists that treatment improves the condition of the human beings at risk, experimenters cannot ethically withhold that treatment simply to create valid controls. Human beings are not rats.23

Although rigorous empirical evaluation of law school ASPs has been relatively lacking, a few empirical studies have been attempted. In 1989, Professor Charles L. Finke reported on the success of an ASP for first-year students at the University of Oregon School of Law.24Finke compared the participants' actual first-year performance with the performance that had been predicted based on their Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores. On average, three classes of ASP students appeared to have achieved average class ranks from nine to twenty-three places higher than predicted.25 Professor Paul T. Wangerin criticized Finke'sPage 656 research plan, however, for being excessively dependent upon LSAT scores and undergraduate GPA data, which are only somewhat predictive of academic performance.26Finke also compared the academic performance of students participating in an ASP to the academic performance of students who attended the school before the ASP was instituted.27Professor Wangerin noted, however, that the comparison did not account for other variables, such as possible changes in admissions procedures.28

Although the University of California at Los Angeles' (UCLA's) ambitious ASP29has received the most thorough evaluation, the findings show some uncertainties in the research. A 1989 study concluded that the programs UCLA offered in the...

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