U.S. News Looks At the Rise in Merit Aid at Law Schools

Are law students victimized by schools when they lose their merit awards for not making the grade?

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David Segal of The New York Times has started a large buzz among the legal blogosphere with his recent article Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win. Segal reports about various issues regarding merit aid awards given to first-year law school students, some of whom lose their merit award because they can't meet the necessary first year grade point average to maintain the merit awards beyond the first year.

Part of the story is a discussion of the pivotal role the U.S. News Best Law School rankings have played in the rapid growth of law school merit aid awards over the last 30 years. The main reason for merit aid at some schools is to raise their admission statistics so they can rise in the U.S. News law school rankings, Segal contends.

Segal says:

[I]f it sounds absurd that America's legal education system could be whipsawed by, of all things, U.S. News, you have yet to grasp the law school fixation with 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. Striving for a high U.S. News ranking consumes the bulk of the marketing budget of a vast number of schools.

Which is where scholarships come in.

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."

Jerry Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, has studied the role of merit scholarships at law schools. "I think there is little doubt that schools with 'competitive' scholarship programs [ones where students need to maintain a certain GPA]—where 60% of first-year students receive a scholarship but only 30% or 35% are able to meet the stipulation that is required to renew the scholarship—are front-loading merit-scholarship dollars to generate the best objective criteria profile [GPA and LSAT] they can for purposes of the U.S. News rankings," Organ said via E-mail.

U.S. News's take on these issues: One key question is whether law school students who lose their merit awards because they didn't achieve a certain GPA are being ripped off by the schools. Law school students who are depending on these awards to finance their entire legal education must make every effort to fully understand all the risks, rules, and trade-offs in advance of enrolling. At the same time, law schools need to disclose more information about how grading on the curve really works and what proportion of students lose their merit awards after the first year. Law School Transparency has made a new proposal to the ABA that requires law schools to disclose far more detailed scholarship retention information.

It's clear that the U.S. News law school rankings have a large impact on law schools and prospective law school students. However, the U.S. News Best Law School rankings are not why students lose their scholarships. In addition, the article implies that the U.S. News rankings are the key factor behind why law schools are offering more merit-based aid and less need-based aid in order to enroll students with higher LSATs and GPAs and, as a result, improve in the rankings. 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.

Among some of the notable coverage:

• TaxProf: NY Times: Law Schools Award Merit Scholarships to Recruit Students (and Goose U.S. News Ranking), And Then Take Them Away With Rigid Grading Curves

• Above the Law: Are Law School 'Merit Scholarships' A Big Racket?

• National Law Journal: Law Schools May be Forced to Disclose Scholarship Rentention Rates

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