--By Jeff Thomas
On May 1, the New York Times garnered a lot of attention in the legal education community with its article “Law Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win,” regarding the disappearing act of merit-based scholarships for many 2L students. The reporter, David Segal, contends that some law schools game the law school rankings by luring in applicants who have stellar LSAT scores and high GPAs—the rankings are very much driven by these two factors for students in the class—with generous financial aid packages, all the while knowing that it will be difficult for them to achieve the level of academic success demanded of them to keep the scholarships. David indicts law schools on this point. Me? I indict prospective law students.
Now, I’m not necessarily indicting you. I’m indicting the thousands of future 1Ls who will select their law schools based on scholarship awards without fully understanding exactly what it takes to keep it. You, eager applicant, just by reading this article, are doing your homework. Let me give you a tip: the system isn’t that tough to crack.
Virtually all law schools, with rare exception, use a standard bell curve in their 1L grading systems. A median GPA is determined by the school ahead of time, and it’s set at different places. Some schools set it as low as 2.0, some as high 3.4 (the average median, or mean median if you will, is a 2.95 on a 4.0 scale—slightly below a B). To be painstakingly obvious, 50 percent of students will be above the bell of the curve, and 50 percent will be below.
But here’s a key point that often falls in the “yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that” category: by virtue of gaining acceptance to your law school, every one of your classmates is equally as qualified as you to be there. You—and they—will be entering into a new realm of academia, with new challenges, new assignments, new exams and new requisite study techniques. If your school has a 1L grading curve with a median set at a 2.5, and you require a 3.0 to maintain your scholarship, understand your odds are going to be steep. Law schools aren’t trying to be tricky. They just know they’ll be able to offer a lot more scholarship awards and only need to pay out X percent of them on a continual basis through years two and three.
One question we get on a regular basis from the tens of thousands of students we help every year is this: “I’ve been accepted to a top-ranked, more expensive school that offered me just a little money and also a lower-ranked school that is offering me a full ride. What do I do?” It’s always about you personal goals. There are many great reasons to go to law school—it’s a noble profession, and you can do many things with it—but for many, it’s not an easy decision because of the investment of time and money. We cannot imagine a worse situation for 1L students to be in at the end of the academic year than finding out that the money they counted on to help them through law school won’t be there after all. This may cause students to drop out and be thousands of dollars in debt toward a degree they will never have because they cannot afford it.
What we say is that while law schools must be responsible when offering hefty merit-based scholarships to applicants (the American Bar Association is actually discussing new rules right now) responsibility is a two-way street. Aspiring law school students themselves have to ask the tough questions (a skill they will need as successful lawyers anyway):
•Is this scholarship guaranteed every year?
•If not, what does it depend on?
•What is the median GPA for students in your 1L class?
•What percentage of your students maintain their scholarships for 2L and 3L?
Schools will gladly give you the answers, if you ask the right questions. Narrow your law school list on a number of metrics— this being one of them—and prepare for all of the possibilities for your 1L year.
Jeff Thomas is the director of pre-law programs for Kaplan Test Prep, managing the company’s LSAT business, including marketing, program development and delivery. A veteran Kaplan LSAT instructor, Jeff helped develop Kaplan’s new suite of 2010 LSAT products including Logic Games On Demand and the LSAT Experience, the industry’s first fully-simulated test day experience. Jeff also maintains close relationships with admissions deans at the nation’s top law schools. A successful entrepreneur, Jeff received a BS in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a JD, magna cum laude, from Albany Law School.
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