Risk of Merit Scholarships

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 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 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.

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  • Cynthia Huang

    This article relates to when I met these two random girls when I was playing pingpong at the gym who happened to be BU law students. They told me how difficult and how competitive it is to maintain their grades. They stated that if the class average is 96% and you get 95%, you receive a C. I reassured them it would be worth it because they will end up with good jobs after law school. But they said this was not a case, I was very shocked when I heard the news, and this article further proves how difficult law school is. In terms of the merit scholarship, it's unfortunate that people end up with such great debt after winning the scholarship because they cannot maintain their GPA.
    From the psychology perspective, people don't take into account about how much stress and debt that higher education causes. The question is if it's really worth it to go to law school. All your hard works may not payoff in the end, since in today's society everyone is striving to be the best. This makes me think of my own future, and if it's worth it to challenge myself to attend higher education even though I may acquire high amount of debt and stress, and no job to compensate for it. On a more positive note, I think this article stresses the importance of not just how delusional law students are, but also how important it is for everyone to have realistic goals and to not think the future will be concrete and will always turn out the way one wants it to.

  • Alex Gershen

    You have to do your research before. Period. Figure out what the median 1L GPA is and assume you will get in between your worst-case and base-case. I will certainly admit that I thought the Top-50% requirement would be easy to attain. When your entire grade is based on one 3-hour test on one random morning, maintaining that high GPA you had in undergrad is for from certain.

    The only real advice I could give to all the future 1L's that are avid fans of this blog. If you are awarded a merit scholarship from a school, contact their Financial Aid department. If you have multiple offers and finances are the major influence in your decision, many students will ask school A to match or exceed the merit received at school B. I sent these letters out and one school increased the aid. But, looking back on it I wish I had requested for no stipulations instead. I know students who successfully requested the school to guarantee their scholarship as a condition to attend. It's no guarantee that it will work, but if you have the numbers the school wants – they just might fall for the bait. You then can enjoy finals week, as much as one could enjoy finals week.

    • drandall

      Thanks Alex. Excellent advice to future 1L's from one who is living what I only read about.

  • Lana Sharuk

    I was really surprised when I read this article. It looks like many of these students are being tricked by the scholarships they think they are receiving. Golden Gate is basically getting students to accept by giving them the scholarships and then they end up taking them back because they know that students will not be able to get the required gpa. It is impossible for all these students to keep the gpa if they are graded on a curve and only a specific percentage can get those grades.

    Yes, students should realize that they will most likely not do as well as they think, but at the same time, they should not have been tricked into going to a school based on its scholarship because they were too confident.

    I also enjoyed this quote, "“I said, ‘Hunting is not a sport.’ He said: ‘Sure it’s a sport. It’s just that the animals don’t know they’re in a game.’ That’s what it feels like to be a law student these days. You have no idea you’re in a game.” It seemed so fitting and really drives the point across of this article.