Read the Fine Print in Your Law School Merit Scholarship

The devil is in the details.  Any lawyer in practice knows that.  Law school applicants and students should too – especially as they consider the merit scholarship packages offered by law schools.  At least that’s one of the take-aways from an article published in the New York Times on Sunday, Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Law Schools Win.

The gist of the NYT story is summed up by the WSJ Law Blog:

“[S]some schools lure top students with offers of merit scholarships that pay thousands of dollars annually. The schools bolster their U.S. News rankings by attracting academic overachievers, but there’s a catch: the students must maintain high GPAs to retain their scholarships, which students often are unable to do partly because schools grade on a curve, thus ensuring that only a small percentage of student will earn the sort of grades needed to retain their scholarship money, according to the Times.

Students accuse some schools of a bait and switch by offering high-paying scholarships without fully informing prospects of the likelihood that they will be able to do well enough to keep the scholarships.”

Any first year law student can tell you the hard truth.  It’s not easy to beat the law school curve.  And that leaves many grant recipients in a tough bind.  (About 80 percent of law schools have these explicit merit stipulations, known as “stips.”)  The NYT story has some cautionary tales of students who lose their scholarships and are then forced to incur high debt levels to pay back tuition at schools ranked lower than the schools they might have otherwise selected, but for the attractive scholarship offer that lured them in.

As the NYT story details, there is the question of whether the law schools do enough to disclose the stipulations and terms of merit scholarships.  The ABA Journal post on this story provides some context on the call for increased disclosure of law school-related data:

“The group Law School Transparency, which backs better reporting of jobs statistics for law grads, has submitted a proposal to the ABA Section of Legal Education to require law schools to publish their law school scholarship retention data. Details are at Law School Transparency’s website.

Both the group and the Times cite a new research paper on the issue by University of St. Thomas law professor Jerry Organ. He also endorses better disclosure.”

This important information has to be readily available to would-be students.  Then, of course, would-be students must avail themselves of the information.  Upon receipt of a scholarship grant, a student should ask the question, “what does it take to keep this?”  After all, future lawyers should learn to read the fine print before they accept grants, take out loans or choose law schools.

In our podcast Financing Your JD: How to Pay For Law School, Assistant Dean of Enrollment Services at Fordham School of Law, Stephen Brown, says law school is an investment and you should treat it as such. “It can be a good or bad investment, depending on what you’re looking to do with your life, depending on your choices. So pay attention to this as you would at any other investment. You find people to do more research on cars than law school, so that’s important.”