ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, May 2, 2011

NY Times on Law School Merit Scholarships

As if our co-blogger Meredith Miller had not depressed us enough on Friday with her thoughts on job prospects for recent graduates, the New York Times piled on in its Sunday Business section with this article about merit scholarships that may not be all that they seem.

The story is about students who are lured to schools with merit scholarships that will free them from their obligation to pay law school tuition, so long as they maintain a certain grade point average.  Most students assume that this will be no problem, because they arrive at law school with gaudy GPAs.  As this chart compiled by Stuart Rojstaczer shows, the average undergraduate GPA was 3.11 in 2006-07.  In such a Lake Wobegon world where all the students are above average, it seems reasonable for newly admitted law students to think they can make the grade without breaking a sweat. 

The Times concludes that schools are luring students in with merit scholarships and then withdrawing those scholarships from a shockingly high number of students.  Why?  The answer is obvious to anyone inside the legal academy: to pump up their U.S. News numbers, of course. Law schools want high LSATs and undergraduate GPAs in their first year class.  So they use fellowships to draw in students whose test scores and GPAs would otherwise take them elsehwere. 

But is there injustice involved?  The report states that the phrase "bait and switch" comes up a lot and that students are "shocked when their scholarships disappear."  Would the injustice not be greater if an underperforming merit scholar got to keep her scholarship while a dark horse student with a 3.5 GPA still had to pay her way?  And is it really too much to expect students who are admitted with merit fellowships to ask about grade distributions or use -- I don't know, perhaps the internet -- to find out how likely it is that they will keep their fellowships?  Law schools frequently use current students to recruit newly admitted students.  Contacts with current students are an ideal way to get just this sort of information. 

Moreover, what U.S. News-conscious law schools take away, other U.S. News-conscious law schools may give.  That is, let's say a student went to a 4th-tier law school in order to get the free ride.  After the first year, the student loses her free ride because of a low GPA.  She likely can transfer to a 3rd-tier school, perhaps even one that wouldn't have taken her at all as a 1L -- let alone with a scholarship -- because the other side of gaming the U.S. News system is poaching transfer students from lower-ranked schools.  The student will still end up paying full tuition for two years of law school, but the alternative is paying full tuition for three years of law school.

Yes, law schools should be up front with information about the likelihood that students will lose their fellowships.  My guess is that, because of the optimism bias, providing that information would not hurt law school recruitment.  According to the Times, Chicago-Kent offers students the choice between a guaranteed $9000/year fellowship and a $15,000 fellowship contingent on maintaining a 3.25 GPA.  Ninety percent of the students assume the risk. 


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