May 2, 2011

A Caution to Prospective Law Students on Merit Scholarships

Law School, Law School Debt


A New York Times report on law school scholarships reveals the real risk many law students may face in attending schools where their scholarships are tied to grade point average requirements.   

As American law schools have “quietly gone on a giveaway binge in the last decade,” with more than one in four law students now receiving a scholarship, many students will inevitably lose those grants, because grading curves at some schools  make it mathematically impossible for all of those who receive scholarships to keep them, the article explains.

At Golden Gate University School of Law, for example, more than 50 percent of students are given merit scholarships, but the curve typically allows only a third of students to achieve the 3.0 GPA required to keep the scholarships. 

 “By the middle of second semester of that first year, everyone saw the system for what it was,” said Alexandra Leumer, a law student at Golden Gate University School of Law who lost her scholarship. “We realized that statistically, because of the curve, there was no way for many of us to keep our scholarships. But at that point, you’re a year in. They’ve got you. You feel stuck.”

University of St. Thomas School of Law Professor Jerry Organ, one of the few scholars to study law school scholarships, attributed this trend of offering too many scholarships to the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which place significant weight in grading schools on students’ undergraduate grade point averages, LSAT scores and bar exam passage rates.

Lower-ranked schools can attract students who have higher GPAs and LSAT scores by offering large numbers of scholarships, and thus boost their rank. And the rankings have a much greater influence on law school selection decisions because law schools, unlike undergraduate institutions, “share far more similarities than they do differences,” the article explains.

Are law schools deceiving students to boost their rankings?

One current student at Golden Gate who declined to be identified had this answer:

I had a friend once who told me that hunting is a sport. I said, ‘Hunting is not a sport.’ He said: ‘Sure it’s a sport. It’s just that the animals don’t know they’re in a game.’ That’s what it feels like to be a law student these days. You have no idea you’re in a game.

Read the full article here. And read reporter David Segal's replies to reader comments here.