Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win is required reading for any prospective law student who is weighing whether to accept a merit scholarship. Most merit scholarships come with minimum GPA requirements. If the recipient’s first- or second-year GPA falls below the threshold–3.0, 3.2, whatever–then they lose the scholarship. Their choice is either to borrow money to continue or to drop out of law school. GPA stipulations are not unusual, and not a problem in themselves. Problems arise when schools that grade on a curve give out more merit scholarships than can, numerically, be eligible to keep them.
This year at Golden Gate, for instance, 57 percent of first-year students — more than 150 in a class of 268 — have merit scholarships. But in recent years, only the top third of students at Golden Gate wound up with a 3.0 or better, according to Ms. Ramey, the dean. If past patterns hold, dozens of first-year Golden Gate scholarships are about to vanish.
With merit scholarships “[law] schools are buying smarter students to enhance their cachet and rise in the rankings. “
The algorithm used by U.S. News puts a heavy emphasis on college grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores. Together, those two numbers determine about 22 percent of a school’s ranking. The bar passage rate, which correlates strongly with undergraduate G.P.A.’s and LSAT scores, is worth an additional two points in the algorithm. In short, students’ academic credentials determine close to a quarter of a school’s rank — the largest factor that schools can directly control.
This by itself isn’t news. For years I’ve advised students of the possibility that they can receive a scholarship from a lower-rated school and graduate with less of a debt burden. (See, for instance, Shed a Tier.) That scholarships come with strings attached is not a surprise. I am surprised, though, that school grading policies may make it impossible for one who receives a merit scholarship to maintain the requisite GPA to keep it.
The problem is not that this is unfair, but that most students are not aware of it. Golden Gate’s dean responded to questions about this practice by saying “[s]tudents who have done well in college assume they will do well in law school. [They would know better] if they read our materials, if they listen to anything we told them in our admission process, or read our course catalog.” As the Times reports “it takes a bit of forensic accounting to figure out how hard it is to keep a 3.0 at Golden Gate.” Many schools do not clearly disclose this specific risk. The congratulations-on-your-scholarship letter does not report the grading-curve risk.
The problem is also that law students are delusional. (The Times put this more gently, saying that law school applicants manifest the “very human tendency to overestimate one’s talents.”) In a post exactly one year ago titled Law: The Cuddly Profession I noted the results of a Kaplan Test Prep survey on pre-law students: “52 percent are ‘very confident’ of finding a legal job after graduating from law school and passing the bar exam. However, only 16 percent are ‘very confident’ that most of their classmates will achieve the same success.”
I’ll be adding this article’s lessons to my law-school-advising mantra.