The New York Times has exposed another case of “obtuseness” AKA lack of transparency in law school administration. This time, in “Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win,” David Segal sheds light on the risky business of merit scholarships. Essentially, a large—yet unpublicized—number of law students lose scholarships each year if they don’t meet the required academic stipulations. According to the ABA, in 2009 more than one in four law students were on merit scholarships. And the prevalence of these scholarships has increased tremendously in the past generation.
Segal attributes this rise to law schools’ obsession with U.S. News rankings: “Unlike undergraduate colleges, law schools share far more similarities than differences, particularly in the first-year curriculum. So a lot of schools regard the rankings as their best chance to establish a place in the educational hierarchy, which has implications for the quality of students that apply, the caliber of law firms that come to recruit, and more.” Since the algorithm used by U.S. News relies heavily on academic credentials—such as, GPA, LSAT score, and bar passage rate—schools are, according to Segal, “buying smarter students to enhance their cachet and rise in the rankings.”
Whatever the motivations are, it seems that the larger issue lies yet again with the lack of clear information. Prospective law students may be told that their merit scholarships are contingent on maintaining a certain GPA, but they’re not fully aware of what that contingency entails. Most law schools grade on a curve, especially in the first year, practically ensuring that a number of students will not make the cut and lose their scholarships.
And as is explained in the WSJ Law Blog, “Students accuse some schools of a bait and switch by offering high-paying scholarships without fully informing prospects of the likelihood that they will be able to do well enough to keep the scholarships. […] If students lose their scholarships, of course, they are in a particularly difficult pickle, because they likely will have to shell out money to complete a degree at a school that they may not have attended but for the now phantom scholarship.” This leads to a crucial point not elaborated on in the NYT, that many law applicants specifically choose a lower-ranked school due to scholarships. Imagine the frustration when at the end of three years these grads not only owe thousands of dollars, but to a school with less prestige than others they had turned down.
This issue has created much debate over who really are the victims here. Above the Law explores both sides, as some argue that the “situation is a result of prospective law students failing to do their due diligence in researching the terms of their scholarship and the curve at their school,” while others feel the problem “has to do with expectations and a lack of disclosure.”
This lack of disclosure is being addressed by the ABA, which is “considering requiring schools to disclose the percentage of students who lose merit scholarships following their first year,” The National Law Journal reports.
And where does U.S. News stand in all of this? In his Morse Code blog, Robert Morse defends the magazine: “Law schools need to take far more direct responsibility for their policies instead of citing the oft-repeated claims that they are forced into these actions solely because U.S. News exerts so much power over law school behavior.” Above the Law takes this response as a good sign: “The tide has turned; pretty much the only people who believe that it’s still cool to mislead prospective law students are people who work for law schools.” Now, if only they can come around…
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