Sander attended graduate school at Northwestern University from 1983 to 1988, earning degrees in law (J.D., 1988) and economics (M.A. 1985, Ph.D., 1990). In his law review comment and his dissertation, Sander sought to understand why fair housing laws had seemingly produced widespread integration in some American metropolitan areas, but very little integration in most. During much of this period, Sander served on the board of the Rogers Park Tenants Committee, and worked on the election effort and subsequent transition team of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.
In 1989, Sander joined the faculty of the UCLA School of Law. During this period, he continued his work on housing segregation, but also pursued two new interests: the reasons behind the American legal profession’s explosive growth since the mid-1960s, and the structure and effects of law school admissions policies. With Kris Knaplund, he published in 1995 the first comparative evaluation of academic support programs used in legal education. After California voters approved Propostion 209 in 1996 – banning the use of race in various government programs, including admissions at the University of California – Sander successfully argued for the adoption of class-based preferences in the law school’s admissions, and published a study on the results of this experiment in 1997.
During the 1990s, Sander was involved in several Los Angeles civic initiatives. He served as President of the Fair Housing Congress of Southern California from 1984 to 1996; founded the Fair Housing Institute in 1996, and helped the City of Los Angeles design and implement in 1997 what was, at the time, the nation's most ambitious living wage law. Sander also persuaded regional authorities to develop outreach programs that sharply increased local usage of the Earned Income Tax Credit, generating tens of millions of dollars annually for LA's poorest working families.
Sander was one of seven UCLA faculty members and staff who launched the Program in Public Interest Law and Policy, which created a distinct curriculum aimed at public interest students. From 1998 to 2004, Sander helped to steer the "After the JD" study, the first national panel study of law school graduates. In 1998-99, Sander and others at the School of Law launched the Empirical Research Group (ERG), an entity designed to help faculty members undertake ambitious empirical projects and introduce more quantitative and methodological sophistication into their policy-related work.
In 2004, Sander published a comprehensive study of affirmative action in American law schools, focusing particularly on the ways in which large preferences imposed unexpected but substantial costs on their intended beneficiaries.
Sander teaches courses in Property, Quantitative Methods, Urban Housing, and Policy Analysis. He is married to astrophysicist Fiona Harrison, and has a son, Robert. He lives in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.