Notre Dame law dean embraces admission practice others call ‘unnecessary, callous’

Bizar Male

In response to criticism about its 2021 admission process, which has been dubbed by one social media user as the “seat deposit scandal,” Notre Dame Law School Dean G. Marcus Cole is calling the approach a success and praising the process as yielding an incoming class that is strongly committed to the institution.

Cole

“This was so successful and worked so well, we’re going to maintain this exact same approach to our admissions from now on,” Cole told Indiana Lawyer.

According to the dean, the class of 2024 will be the most diverse in the law school’s history with about a third being students of color. Also, the class has a median LSAT score of 168, which is three points higher than the median 165 recorded just two years ago.

Describing the admission process as a “roaring success,” Cole said, “We are very pleased with the composition of the incoming class.”

However, the approach created a stir on social media. Applicants vented their dismay when they discovered the deadline for submitting their deposits had passed and despite having been admitted with scholarship offers, they found themselves on the wait list.

In turn, Kyle McEntee, executive direct of Law School Transparency, wrote about the situation for Above the Law in an article entitled “Chaos Reigns.” Other articles followed in Inside Higher Ed and on Law.com.

Cole asserted the articles are “completely inaccurate.”

As with other law schools, Notre Dame requires its admittees to pay a nonrefundable deposit in order to hold their seats for the fall semester. The school had set an April 15 deadline for the $600 to be paid but the school reached its enrollment limit ahead of the deadline and closed the deposit portal April 6.

An email was sent when deposits were received for 67% of the class slots. A short time later, another email announced the class was 80% filled which, Cole said, ignited a “sudden flood” of deposits that brought enrollment to 100% and caused the law school to quit taking students.

McEntee reported the law school closed the deposit portal about six hours after announcing capacity had reached 67%.

In his Above the Law post, McEntee described Notre Dame’s approach as “a fast-paced auction.” He asserted the process forced applicants to make the decision of where they wanted to study law quickly. In addition, the lower-income applicants were at a particular disadvantage because they were already stretched financially after paying the fees to prepare for and take the LSAT and the fees to apply to law school.

“There needs to be accountability when schools do things that are inequitable, that have a particularly negative effect on unwealthy students and put all students in an uncomfortable position,” McEntee said.

Cole countered that the approach the law school took to admissions this year was the same as it used last year. The goal has been to keep the incoming classes smaller, especially after the institution struggled to find the physical space and resources to accommodate the 1L class of 216 that arrived in the fall of 2019.

Last year, the deadline came first so the time for taking deposits was not moved forward. This year, with the number of applications up 40%, the enrollment target came first.

According to Cole, the admittance letter sent to successful applicants included language explaining Notre Dame Law School would stop taking deposits either on April 15 or when the target enrollment of 180 was reached. Admittees were reminded March 9 of the expiring offer and additional notifications were also sent when capacity hit 67% and 80%.

“No one should be surprised and no one should be excited,” Cole said. “Absolutely no single person can justifiably and fairly claim they didn’t know about the closure of the deposit portal.”

Still, the process did turn heads in the admissions offices at other law schools. University of Michigan senior assistant dean Sarah Zearfoss said she initially did not believe the story of the expiring offer was true. Before she learned which school had taken such an approach, she posted a video online calling the practice “insane” and “unhinged.”

Speaking to the Indiana Lawyer, Zearfoss walked back those comments but maintained Notre Dame’s policy was “such a disappointing thing” and “created so much uncertainty for the applicants.”

The Michigan dean said she has received emails from Notre Dame admittees who detailed how the process impacted them.

One admittee told her he had scheduled a visit to Notre Dame purposefully before the April 15 deadline. But when the clock started ticking, he paid the deposit in advance then traveled to South Bend only to discover he did not like the school. Another student wrote that he had a full scholarship. However, he is living in the United Kingdom and because of the time differences did not get the warnings so is now on the waitlist.

Zearfoss said the approach not only increased the level of stress and sent many applicants scrambling but it also came during a global pandemic. Potential students have limited options for making in-person visits to the law schools and, because of the high number of law school applications overall, the process for finalizing financial aid and scholarship offers has been slower.

“To me, this policy seems an unnecessarily callous approach,” Zearfoss said. “I assume Notre Dame felt a great deal of pressure that led them to take this approach.”

Both McEntee and Zearfoss were concerned the expiring offer would be most harmful to diverse applicants who come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and may be the first in their families to attend law school. They could disproportionately feel stress and economic pressure at being forced to choose rapidly whether or not to pay the deposit.

Cole said many of the diverse applicants coming to Notre Dame submitted their deposits well before the portal closed. Also, he explained, the law school worked with applicants to either lower or waive the payment all together so the $600 would not be a barrier to enrolling.

“I think there are a lot of factors why we are attracting diverse candidates,” Cole said. In particular, he pointed to a column he wrote recounting his own encounters with racism and outlining his promises to address racial violence. As evidence of him keeping his commitment, he highlighted the opening of the law school’s Exoneration Justice Project in the fall of 2020.

“I think our application process has not hurt the enrollment of diverse candidates,” Cole said. “If anything, it has created an advantage because they identified us as the place where they want to study and they deposited early because they chose us first.”

Notre Dame Law Association president Nancy Gargula supported the law school’s admission practices. She said the institution’s reputation drew an “all-time record number of applications” and, to avoid enrollment, the deposit portal was closed before the deadline.

“The law school’s commitment to attracting the best and brightest students to become a part of the Notre Dame family and assure the deposit is not a financial impediment is evidenced by the diversity of the incoming class and the fact that the overwhelming majority of the class will be receiving financial aid at the highest rate in the law school’s history,” Gargula said.

McEntee was not persuaded. He noted other law schools have managed enrollments without having to move deposit deadlines.

“There are better ways to get to the class target than putting applicants in a pressure cooker,” he said.

Neither McEntee nor Zearfoss expect other law schools to adopt the Notre Dame approach. Yet the Michigan dean speculated the American Bar Association could possibly set a standard or guidelines for deposit deadlines.

The ABA Council on the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar does not regulate how law schools administer their admission process.

Also, the Law School Admission Council declined to comment on the admission policies of any member school. However, the organization did note as part of its “commitment to promote quality, access, and equity in legal education,” it has worked with law schools to develop voluntary guidelines which are intended to “promote the highest standards of professional conduct” for the benefit of all law applicants.

Cole believes his law school’s approach was beneficial to the applicants and the school.

 “I embrace the process,” he said, asserting the applicants who met the deposit deadline really want to study at Notre Dame and were not interested in seeing if they could get into a higher ranked law school.  “They chose us first. They see us as the place they want to be and the place where they want to learn.”

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