Survey: Law School Merit Aid Tuition Breaks Largely Flow to 'Privileged Students'

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Merit scholarships for law school students largely go to privileged students, rather than following an allocation formula based on true merit, according to a new survey from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE). What's more, the vast majority of law school scholarships awarded to students are not based on financial need at all, the survey found.

Although the survey found that more law school students today are receiving scholarships – 71 percent of those surveyed in 2015-16 – the scholarships have not been distributed across different student populations. This is the first time the LSSSE has asked respondents in its annual survey to share information about the types of scholarship and grant aid they receive. The data represent responses from more than 16,000 law school students at 67 law schools in the United States.

The survey found that while need-based aid at law schools remained relatively flat between 2004-05 and 2009-10 – increasing just 7 percent and 2 percent at public and private law schools, respectively – merit-based aid grew by 68 percent at public law schools and by 53 percent at private law schools. Of the scholarships awarded in 2015-16, 79 percent were merit-based, with white and Asian respondents most likely to receive the merit scholarships.

Aaron Taylor, director of LSSSE and associate professor at Saint Louis University School of Law said that while schools have "become more generous" in awarding aid, "this bounty has not been spread evenly or equitably."

"Narrow conceptions of merit ensure that scholarship funds flow more generously to students most likely to come from privileged backgrounds – leaving students from disadvantaged backgrounds bearing more of the risks associated with attending law school," Taylor said in a statement. "The end-result is a cascade of negative outcomes, including a perverse cost-shifting strategy through which disadvantaged students subsidize the attendance of their privileged peers. This is the hallmark of an inequitable system."

Respondents with higher LSAT scores were also more likely to receive merit scholarships, the survey found. But Frank Wu, a distinguished professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, said the LSAT and undergraduate GPAs (another factor used in formulas to determine merit aid eligibility) are not accurate measures of merit.

"If law schools wished to reward merit in good faith, they could do so through scholarships to high-performing continuing students – those who have law school records to judge," Wu said in a foreword to a report on the survey. "But the utilitarian calculation which treats students as means to an end suggests that money is better spent on entering students. The latter, not the former, 'count' for rankings purposes."

Respondents with high LSAT scores were also more likely to be white or Asian. Similar correlation exists with other standardized tests. The LSSSE found that African-American and Latino respondents tended to have lower LSAT scores, and thus were less likely to receive merit aid. In the sample, 63 percent of African-American and 46 percent of Latino students had LSAT scores below the national median, compared to about a quarter of white and Asian respondents.

What's more, students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds – non-first generation students for whom at least one parent has a bachelor's degree or higher – were the most likely to receive merit aid, whereas those from the lowest socioeconomic background – first generation students for whom neither parent has more than a high school diploma – were the least likely.

"The scholarship policies described in this Report ought to be exposed for what they are: sales gimmicks in the form of tuition discounts," Wu said. "Despite their name, 'merit scholarships' are neither based on actual merit nor true scholarships. Law schools could reduce the price of attendance across-the-board for the benefit of students, with the same aggregate budgetary effect on institutions. But they have not done so. The reason is that consumers respond to sales; they want deals."


Publication Date: 2/10/2017

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