No Such Thing As a Free Lunch: the Fine Print on Full Scholarship Offers

    Law School Admissions

    8735833706_69c472f53f_mIn the third, and final installment of our blog series on merit-based scholarships, this week we will discuss the question of what it takes to keep your merit-based scholarship offer for the duration of your legal education. You can read the previous two installments of this series here:

    Scholarship vs. Prestige: When to Take the Money and Run?

    A Law Degree Is Worth over $1 Million. Can You Get It for Free?

    If you're applying for admission in the Fall of 2015, applied early, and have competitive numbers for the schools to which you applied, chances are you already have a few acceptances under your belt. Better yet, if your numbers fall above the school's median, you may have received a full or a partial scholarship offer. For most admitted applicants, such financial assistance can help defray the ever-increasing cost of legal education, and is undoubtedly a good thing. Most offers, however, have a fine print: they are contingent upon the student's maintaining a certain level of academic achievement.

    The vast majority of scholarship recipients pay little or no attention to the conditional nature of their offers, believing - naively - that they can easily meet or exceed the requirements stipulated in their offer. However, just because your LSAT and GPA are above the median for the school's entering class does not mean that you will be at the top of your class. Law school exams are graded on a curve, ensuring that not all students earn the GPA needed to retain their scholarship money: the average scholarship retention across all law schools is currently estimated at 69%. In other words, one of every three scholarship recipients fails to retain his or her scholarship. What's more, according to Nathan Koppel of the WSJ Law Blog, "If students lose their scholarships ... they are in a particularly difficult pickle, because they likely will have to shell out money to complete a degree at a school that they may not have attended but for the now phantom scholarship."

    When comparing the scholarship offers you receive, do not look only at the scholarship amount: a full scholarship may be worth less than a partial one if you end up losing the full scholarship after the first year. While the scholarship amount is certainly one important factor to take into account, it is important to find the answers to the following key questions:

    1. What are the exact stipulations for retaining the offer?
    2. If the school requires you to maintain a certain average GPA, where does that place you relative to your peers? A good way to gauge the relationship between class rank and GPA is to find out more about the forced curve of your 1L exams. If, for instance, your exams are curved to a median GPA of 3.16 and your scholarship requires maintaining a B+ average, then you would need to be way above the median (probably top-30%) in order to retain your scholarship.
    3. What proportion of the 1L students who receive scholarship offers are able to keep them for the duration of their studies? Generally speaking, higher-ranked law schools have higher retention rates than lower ranked schools. Only 11.5% of the scholarship recipients attending a top-50 law school lost their scholarships after the first year; a full 41% of those who attend Tier 4 schools did.

    As a result of the ABA’s revisions to Standard 509, Consumer Information, there is now a much greater universe of publicly available information about law school scholarship programs, specifically conditional scholarship programs and scholarship retention. Of particular interest may be the following:

    Scholarship retention data compiled by Law School Transparency, a non-profit organization

    Conditional Scholarships and Scholarship Retention for 2011-12

    The Law Schools Where You're Most Likely To Kiss Your Merit-Based Scholarship Goodbye

    At four law schools, fewer than 40 percent of students retain their merit scholarships

    Bait and Switch? Law Schools Gain in US News with Merit Scholarships Conditioned on High Grades

    Proposing a New Standard to Require Scholarship Retention Information

    Photo courtesy of Eamon Curry.