Cynical Generosity and Law Schools

Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that law school itself law school itself is often a pretty risky financial choice.

Many are now arguing that scholarship programs at law schools are something of a scam. According to a piece by David Segal in the New York Times, America’s law schools have lately gotten very generous with merit-based financial aid. But students often can’t maintain their grades to retain those scholarships. As Segal writes:

Nobody knows exactly how many law school students nationwide lose scholarships each year — no oversight body tallies that figure — but what’s clear is that American law schools have quietly gone on a giveaway binge in the last decade. In 2009, the most recent year for which the American Bar Association has data, 38,000 of 145,000 law school students — more than one in four — were on merit scholarships. The total tab for all schools in all three years: more than $500 million.

But law schools grade on a curve, so the number of students who can earn a B or better in each class is strictly rationed. So a lot of them lose scholarships, but continue to attend the schools, taking out loans to do so.

This is a recent development. Twenty years ago virtually no law schools offered merit scholarships, just getting in was evidence of merit.

And then there was U.S. News & World Report. According to the Segal article,

The algorithm used by U.S. News puts a heavy emphasis on college grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores. Together, those two numbers determine about 22 percent of a school’s ranking. The bar passage rate, which correlates strongly with undergraduate G.P.A.’s and LSAT scores, is worth an additional two points in the algorithm. In short, students’ academic credentials determine close to a quarter of a school’s rank — the largest factor that schools can directly control.

“What law schools are buying is higher G.P.A.’s and LSATs,” Professor [Jerry] Organ [of the University of St. Thomas School of Law] said. In other words, the schools are buying smarter students to enhance their cachet and rise in the rankings.

But all the law schools need to do is get the students to start the program. Because their grading policies ensure that many students won’t earn high GPAs, most schools won’t actually have to pay for those merit scholarships all three years.

Some 80 percent of American law schools maintain merit stipulations for scholarships.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer