What Law Schools Don't Tell Parents About Financial Aid

Paying for law school can be expensive, but need-based and merit-based aid exists.

By + More
Paying for high school can get expensive for parents.
Expenses for your teen’s education may add up faster than you expect.

While law school applicants may currently be preoccupied studying for the LSAT and brainstorming essay topics, parents are often most concerned with the financial investment that law school requires. Tuition alone can run higher than $50,000 per year at top schools like Stanford Law School and Yale Law School, and that does not take into account books, living expenses, and forgone income.

[Find out how to pay for law school.]

Here is what parents need to know about need-based and merit-based financial aid for law school:

Need-based aid: Applicants looking for need-based aid from law schools are generally required to include their parents' financial information, but every law school makes its own rules about whether parental data is mandatory—and if so, how it is weighted in the final aid calculation. 

At Harvard Law School, for any applicants who will be 25 or younger on September 1, all of his or her parents' financial resources will be considered. For applicants who are ages 26 to 28 as of September 1, the parents' total resources will be reduced by 25 percent. Applicants who will be 29 or older on September 1 do not need to submit any parental information.

Most law schools have some variation of Harvard's age-based rules. For example, the University of Virginia School Of Law stipulates that all applicants who are unmarried and age 26 or younger must submit parental financial information.

Other schools, such as Georgetown University Law Center, however, require parental information for all applicants regardless of age, marital status, or financial independence.

If you are concerned, as a parent, that your income or assets will negatively affect your child's financial aid package, keep in mind that need-based grants are generally far less available in law school than in college. Thus, in most cases, your income or assets will not have a substantial impact on the grants your child receives.

Law schools generally provide most need-based aid in the form of loans rather than grants, and then determine financial need when a student graduates and is working. Law school graduates who go into public interest jobs, which tend to pay significantly less than corporate law jobs, benefit from federal and school loan repayment programs, no matter what their financial status was entering law school.

Alternatively, graduates who go into higher-paying jobs at large law firms are generally expected to pay back their loans themselves, even if they came into law school from an economically disadvantaged background.

[Learn about student loan changes for 2012.]

Merit-based aid: This source of paying for law school is often overlooked by applicants since there is often no special application for it, and it is usually not highlighted by law schools. However, merit-based aid can substantially reduce the cost of law school from the start, so parents should focus their efforts on helping their children attain the highest possible merit-based packages.

Unlike need-based loans, merit-based financial aid grants never need to be repaid by the student or parents, no matter what type of job the student ultimately obtains.

While the top three law schools, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, generally do not offer very significant merit-based aid, other top schools offer valuable grants ranging from about $10,000 a year to full scholarships. Parents should encourage their children to apply to a range of schools, as some law schools are specifically known for giving out a lot of merit-based aid.

[Find out how to negotiate law school financial aid.]

These awards are given out primarily based on the strength of the applicant's profile, so parents should be sure that their children are investing sufficient time and effort in preparing the qualitative aspects of the application (essays, résumé, and short answer questions), as these can be determinative in financial aid awards.

Applicants should also apply to a variety of public and private schools. Many public schools are well-ranked, and even their out-of-state tuitions can be significantly lower than tuition at private schools with similar rankings. For example, Case Western Reserve School of Law in Cleveland, ranked 67th, is $42,564 per year, while University of Cincinnati College of Law, ranked right below at 69th, is just $22,204 for in-state students and $38,720 for out-of-state students.

[Explore the U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings.]

While quantitative factors such as LSAT score and GPA are certainly taken into consideration, "soft" factors like a compelling personal story are essential to compete for merit-based aid. For extra help, investing in an admissions counselor to help your child assemble the best possible application can give you a very strong financial return if your student receives a scholarship.

Parents—what questions do you have about financial aid for your law school applicant? E-mail me at shawn.oconnor@stratusprep.com or contact me via Twitter at @StratusPrep.