Read the Fine Print for Merit Aid

Ask questions about how many law students get--and keep--their merit scholarships.

By + More

As we have documented in previous blog posts, candidates for bachelor's degrees are leaving college with an average of $24,000 in educational debt and increasing numbers of college students struggle to repay their student loans.

For those who pursue advanced and professional degrees, the situation is also dire. For example, the American Bar Association's Legal Education Statistics for the 2008-2009 academic year indicate that the average amount borrowed by law school graduates attending public school was $66,045. Private law school graduates had borrowed $100,003.

[Learn more about borrowing for graduate school.]

Compounding the problem is a weak economy with fewer jobs. Law schools are increasingly aware of this problem and, as reported by the New York Times, some are taking dramatic steps such as retroactively inflating grades in an attempt to help their graduates' employment prospects.

[Read about 10 law degrees with the most financial value at graduation.]

And while programs like Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness can help after you graduate, reducing your initial debt burden can be trickier. (If you don't know about these programs, register for our next webinar, called Plan Before You Borrow: What You Should Know About Educational Loans BEFORE You Go to Graduate School.) Given the current deficit-cutting focus in Congress, Pell grants for low-income students are likely to be reduced. And as states continue to struggle to balance their budgets, tuition at public universities is likely to rise.

In this environment, it is smart for students to seek out every feasible means to reduce debt load. (In previous blogs, for example, we have discussed starting at community college and utilizing 529 plans as ways to reduce the cost of college.) Merit scholarships are a great way to do that.

[Know where to find graduate school loan forgiveness.]

And law schools appear to be increasingly generous when it comes to merit scholarships. According to the ABA, 38,000 of 145,000 law school students had merit scholarships in 2009. (Ironically, given the growth in merit scholarships, according to the ABA, the number of need-based scholarships has been reduced to 18,000 from 20,000 over the last five years.) But as a recent article in the New York Times reveals, recipients should read the fine print before counting on scholarships to completely defray the cost of law school or even allow them to sway their decision to attend a particular school.

[Read U.S. News's take on the rise in merit aid at law schools.]

Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win demonstrates how many law students lose the merit scholarships they relied on in considering the debt factor and choosing schools. At many law schools, scholarship recipients have to maintain a grade-point average of 3.0 or above during their first and second years to keep their grants. That doesn't sound hard, but many of these schools grade students on a curve, which makes it statistically possible for only a certain number of first-year students to maintain a 3.0. That means a certain number of students will lose their scholarships and pay full tuition their last two years.

What is the fine print? Don't let the curve fool you: Just knowing the GPA you must achieve to keep your merit scholarship is not very helpful; you also have to find out where the school sets its median grade (look for this on the school's website) because on a curved grading scale, a 3.0 is a lot harder to reach if the median is 2.6 than if it's 2.8. You should also research how many students also have been given a merit scholarship. Be realistic: Given the curve, is it mathematically possible for every one of you to get a 3.0? Also, consider asking the law school how many merit scholarships are lost each year. The school knows that number—although it probably does not publicize it and currently the ABA does not report it.

These calculations may seem like a lot of trouble now, but they're definitely worth it when choosing which schools you are able to afford: If you lose your scholarship, how much are you willing to borrow to pay for the remaining two years of school? And keep in mind the long-lasting impact high educational debt can have on the rest of your life. It may delay or prevent you from being able to buy a home, have a family, start your own business or save for your own child's education. While earlier generations may have been able to assume their ability to go to college and still have these options, students today cannot afford to make the same assumption.

Isaac Bowers is the senior program manager for Educational Debt Relief and Outreach at Equal Justice Works. He was previously an attorney at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco, where he focused on environmental, land use, and planning issues. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Bowers also has extensive experience in nonprofit advocacy and outreach.