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UH Professor Studies Law School Admissions to Improve Diversity

Frank FernandezHigher education Assistant Professor Frank Fernandez hopes his research will expose weaknesses in law school admission practices for minority groups.

Posted May 22, 2018 – The University of Houston prides itself on being one of the most culturally, economically and academically diverse colleges in the nation, reflecting the city it calls home.

But what if the diversity at UH could be the norm among institutions of higher learning? That’s a key question driving the research of UH College of Education Assistant Professor Frank Fernandez.

He and co-investigator Hyun Kyoung Ro, of Bowling Green State University, were recently awarded a $46,000 grant from the Association for Institutional Research and the AccessLex Institute to study diversity in law schools.

Fernandez’s own journey through undergraduate and graduate school is characterized by hard work, luck and triumph over statistical odds that show little favor for minority populations. He now is using his success as a researcher to explore and pinpoint systematic flaws that often keep minority groups, particularly women of color, from equal access to higher education institutions, especially law schools.

“The goal behind the research is to figure out how to make it work for more people so it doesn’t feel like, ‘I’m lucky to have got through,’ but so that’s the norm for more people,” said Fernandez, who joined the College’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in 2017.

Fernandez and his team have begun their research by examining admissions data from over 20 public law schools around the country. The data set is from 2006, before the 2008 financial crisis warped all law school admissions due to a drop in applications.

Fernandez hopes that the findings on weaknesses in law school admissions practices will not only benefit the institutions and students but also will transform and repair flaws in the country’s criminal justice system.

“We’ve found that the criminal justice system is broken sometimes, particularly for women. To the extent that we can diversify law schools and the profession as a whole, I think that would be better for a lot of people,” Fernandez said.

While many studies of law school admissions do look at race and sex, often they are addressed separately. Fernandez and his team suggest that the separation has negatively impacted populations that exist in the intersection of the two categories, such as women of color.

“In the end, it’s not that we just want equity at an abstract level,” Fernandez said. “When really important cases and decisions are being made, we want to know that the people in that courtroom are the kinds of people that actually have experience with those kinds of situations.”

–By Claire Andersen