ABA Journal


Law Schools

Which law schools were most likely to yank merit-based scholarships?

Jul 8, 2013, 10:45 am CDT


What is surprising about losing a "merit" scholarship if your grades "fall below a minimum standard"? The "merit" being rewarded is the ability to do law school work, not college work. If a school wanted to hand out money with no strings attached they would call it a grant. Describing this as "bait and switch" illustrates why the Golden Gate students didn't do all that well in school.

By Pushkin on 2013 07 08, 11:12 am CDT

@1: The news blurb above gives too little information to say much. One has to read the paper by Organ to realize this is not an apples-to-apples comparison across institutions. One key aspect is whether a conditional scholarship simply requires the student to be in good standing, or sets a higher bar. I found this very telling:

"Among the top 50 law schools, only 20 law schools (40%) had conditional scholarship programs and 12 of those had a scholarship retention rate of 90% or higher. This means 30 of the top 50 law schools (62%) had need-based scholarships or scholarships that are “unconditional” under the ABA Standard 509, either because they are guaranteed for all three years or because the condition for retention is simply good academic standing. As will be seen in the discussion that follows, as a general matter, top 50 law schools have a far more generous approach to scholarships than law schools ranked 51 and below. For example, while 30 of the top 50 law schools offered unconditional scholarship programs in 2011-12, only 18 of the remaining 144 law schools included in this tabulation did not have conditional scholarship programs in 2011-12."

By Tyrone on 2013 07 08, 12:15 pm CDT

The ones that admitted the most marginal students on "merit-based scholarships"?

By B. McLeod on 2013 07 08, 12:20 pm CDT

Tyrone - Higher ranked schools give "need based" or "good standing" scholarships because they do not use scholarships to attract students with good credentials. They do not need to, their higher ranking does that for them. Lower ranked schools are in a different situation. If they are going to bolster the academic numbers of their student bodies they will have to buy students. Since they also are likely to be poorer than higher ranked schools, they will need to free up as much money as they can each year to buy as many new students as possible. The only way to do this (short of fund raising) is not to renew a percentage of the scholarships. They realize this strategy won't move them up in the rankings. They're concerned about moving down.

By Pushkin on 2013 07 08, 2:25 pm CDT

Amongst the top 30 schools by current US News rankings, Alabama was by far the worst with 54 % retention, just barely missing this list. Alabama's Dean just left for Infilaw.

By MrKrabs on 2013 07 08, 2:43 pm CDT

Pushkin, you're just wrong on a number of points.

* high ranked schools do use scholarships to attract students with good credentials, especially now
* the strategy is also used to move up, see Washington University, Emory, and George Washington for starters.

By Pushkin is Usually Wrong on 2013 07 08, 3:36 pm CDT

Mason, when I went there, had a brutal curve. No "minus" grades. So a B- became a C+. If I recall, fully a third of each class had to be given a C+. A 3.3 GPA put you in the top of the class.

So when a school says "keep a B or better", buyer beware.

By guest on 2013 07 08, 3:52 pm CDT

@ 6 - the story is principally about schools ranked outside the top 50, and anyone who has followed law school rankings since they began in the mid nineties understands that movement into the top tier has been minimal. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about the rankings is how stable they are. The reason is quite simple. Everyone is trying to get better, and all of these efforts cancel one another out and leave everyone right where they are. For a school to make a real change in position (not just 5-10 spots) it needs a huge influx of money. The classic examples are NYU, Georgetown, and Northwestern. Emory, in fact, is notable for not having made an equivalent improvement even with a huge influx of Coke money (to the University as well as the Law School). The most recent school to move up without money is Indiana (Bloomington), but again, the movement was within a tier, not from one tier to the next. That's also true for the Wash U and GW examples you give.

As for using scholarships to increase credentials, it is true the GW is a big spender in that market, that almost no one pays retail there, because it wants to catch Georgetown. My point was that the increasing emphasis on need based scholarships as one moves up the pecking order, as described in the Organ article, is explained by the fact that the higher ranked schools have a much larger pool of applicants with good credentials and don't need to use scholarships to attract them. They can be more "generous," as Organ puts it, and take financial need into account. Lower ranked schools, those outside the top tier, don't have that luxury.

By Pushkin on 2013 07 08, 4:31 pm CDT

Adding to #7's comments, the "keep a B or better" is also not so easy when the school's curve is much lower. Most of those Top 50 schools are 3.0 curve. While some law schools set their 1L curve at 2.5. Getting over a 3.0 on a 2.5 curve during 1L year is much harder than on a 3.0 curve. If there was consistency across the board I would easily agree with #1's comment regarding merit-base; however, some schools really do try to stack the odds. On the other hand, the burden to do their research before going to law school is on the student, if they enter 1L year thinking their undergrad grads will translate to law school, they clearly failed to do their research.

By Birls on 2013 07 08, 4:42 pm CDT

GW has consistently been ranked about #20 since usnews has kept a list, you keep talking about this jump from merit scholarship spending, I'm not following.

By GW alum on 2013 07 08, 6:14 pm CDT

Simple math:

Give one half the incoming class merit scholarships with the caveat "you must stay in the top 1/3rd of the class"

It is a logical impossibility for one half of the class to be in the top 1/3rd of the class.

Thus the school can freely hand out scholarships knowing that a predetermined number of students MUST lose their scholarships after the first semester (whatever money is lost on the first semester can be made up in tuition hikes).

Students won't have this info (or reason to expect this) that not everyone can be winners despite similar intelligence and hard work. The knowledge imbalance favoring the school is the 'bait and switch'

They should put these scholarship offers on the LSAT

By jc945 on 2013 07 08, 7:44 pm CDT

Comment removed by moderator.

By Alayna on 2013 07 08, 7:53 pm CDT

GW alum - If you'll look carefully at the comment you'll see that it has two paragraphs. The first is about making a major jump in the rankings and the second is about the use of scholarship money. 6 made those two separate points and I responded to them individually. I said Georgetown, Northwestern and NYU made major jumps in the rankings and that GW spends scholarship money on the basis of credentials more than need. The effect, as you indicate, has been mostly to hold its position. It would be interesting to see what would happen to the profile of its incoming class if it awarded money solely on a the basis of need.

By Pushkin on 2013 07 08, 8:02 pm CDT

@ jc945 - the fact that schools award more scholarships than they renew has been known for years. Even undergraduates know it. Students who accept scholarships conditioned on performance are betting on themselves, therefore, and sometimes it turns out to be a bad bet. When it does, some of them complain. But there's no bait and switch. The store really did have the item in stock, just not enough for everybody.

As for awarding scholarship money on the basis of LSAT scores, you must be one of those teenagers who thinks life consists of psyching out machine graded tests. That skill loses its value pretty quickly once you leave the cocoon of school. But I'm impressed with your explanation of how one-half is larger than one-third. I can see why you like machine graded tests.

By Pushkin on 2013 07 08, 8:26 pm CDT

The problem with those scholarships is that schools will purposely put scholarship holders in the same section so they compete on the same curve, so it makes it more difficult for students to maintain them. Law school curve is the worst.

By guest1988 on 2013 07 08, 8:46 pm CDT


1. "The store really did have the item in stock, just not enough for everybody."

If true, this the longstanding car dealership tactic to get people to come to the dealership: 'advertise an insanely low price, but there was only one at that price'. Come to think of it, is this dealership tactic legal? But unlike car dealerships you don't find out there were one at that price until after incurring a mountain of debt.

2. "The fact that schools award more scholarships than they renew has been known for years. Even undergraduates know it."

If true, the issue isn't what is known to some or many, the issue is that this knowledge favors law schools to the detriment of those few (or many) who don't know. There ought to be disclosure of this on the same page as the offer. Much as law school is theoretically an investment, have you ever read all the legally required disclosures that are mandatory on an actual investment offer (securities) ?

3. "Students who accept scholarships conditioned on performance are betting on themselves, therefore, and sometimes it turns out to be a bad bet."

If true, there's a difference between fair/unfair bet and good/bad bet. This confuses the two.

Sorry to respond in a list in case anything appears out of context, just easiest way to respond. Also not saying all schools are like this, perhaps not even the ones in this article, just concerned that some might be like this based on things I've read and the statistics I've seen.

By jc945 on 2013 07 09, 7:25 am CDT

Often, I find myself thinking of the maxim attributed to George Patton: "Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser."

By B. McLeod on 2013 07 09, 8:02 am CDT

Here's the thing I've never understood about people who complain about losing merit based scholarships. You're guaranteed the money for the first year, so you get one full free year of law school, which depending on where you went can range from $20-50,000.

As a law school professor once told my class, at some point all of you were the smartest person in the room, but now you're in a different room.

By OKBankLaw on 2013 07 09, 1:08 pm CDT

The information about Chicago Kent is no longer accurate. We stopped offering conditional scholarships two years ago, and even then, afforded students the option between a guaranteed and conditional scholarship package.

By Ralph Brill on 2013 07 09, 2:22 pm CDT

What I have personally seen is a school giving out a merit-based scholarship for the first year, conditioned for the next two on GPA, but only intending to give out a smaller number for the next three years. To keep that intended number, they changed grades on some people, e.g. making an A into a B because of 'grade inflation' by the professor.

By Robin Saporito on 2013 07 09, 2:54 pm CDT

I should add that at Chicago Kent we have raised the first year curve to avoid the problem that Birls above refers to. For those who have chosen conditional scholarships, there is more than enough opportunity for them to meet the minimum average at the end of the first year to retain all or a portion of the scholarship award. The raise in curve also reflects the disadvantage that a low curve places our graduates in compared to other schools that have a more liberal curve.
For exams like mine, in Torts, which are not multiple choice, and which don't really have a "right" answer (I am looking for whether the student has spotted the issues, understands the basic agreed upon doctrines or the possible alternative doctrines other jurisdictions might use, and can apply that doctrine in a logical manner) there really is no way to say "this is a B answer." So, adjusting the curve, without at the same time sacrificing judging basic competence in the skills required, seems a fair thing to do, to balance the scholarship issues and to keep our students in line with grades other competing schools would give for similar work.

By Ralph Brill on 2013 07 09, 3:14 pm CDT

To Ralph Brill. The information about Chicago Kent is accurate. For the entering class of 2011 Chicago Kent renewed 42% of the conditional scholarships. You may have changed your criteria once you learned that the ABA was going to require the reporting of conditional scholarship retention rates, but the 2011 class figure is accurate.

By Linda on 2013 07 09, 4:26 pm CDT

Linda: please reread what I said. I said it is no longer true. And we changed two years ago. And even then there was an option to make the aid conditional. I was not contesting what happened til then.

By Ralph on 2013 07 09, 4:34 pm CDT

Ralph. I did read what you said. Once you found out that the ABA was going to require reporting of scholarship retention rates you changed your criteria. That;s what scammers do. When the old scam doesn't work, they move on to a new one.

By Linda on 2013 07 09, 5:19 pm CDT

Linda: You obviously don't know much about the law of defamation or injurious falsehood. From hypothesizing that we "may have" changed "once we learned the ABA..etc." you jump to go to an outright accusation that that is what we did and why we did it. Accusing someone of being a scammer includes the innuendo that we were doing it knowingly and maliciously, trying to cheat prospective students. We have always complied with the ABA Standards, including information about conditional scholarships. The ABA Standard is as follows and has been for some time:

(a) All consumer information that a law school reports, publicizes or distributes shall be complete,
accurate and not misleading to a reasonable law school student or applicant. Schools shall use
due diligence in obtaining and verifying consumer information. Violations of these obligations
may result in sanctions under Rule 16 of the Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools.
(b) A law school shall publicly disclose on its website consumer information in the following
(1) admissions data;
(2) tuition, fees, living costs, fi nancial aid, conditional scholarships and refunds;
(3) enrollment data and attrition/graduation rates;
(4) number of full-time and part-time faculty and administrators;
(5) curricular offerings, academic calendar, and academic requirements;
(6) library resources;
(7) facilities; and
(8) employment outcomes and bar passage data.

By Ralph Brill on 2013 07 09, 6:19 pm CDT

Ralph. Has Chicago Kent disclosed to consumers the percentage of conditional scholarships retained by students after the first year since this version of 509 went into effect?

By Linda on 2013 07 09, 6:39 pm CDT


By Ralph Brill on 2013 07 09, 7:32 pm CDT

Ralph. That page only contains the numbers for the entering class of 2011. Did Chicago Kent disclose the numbers for earlier years to prospective law students?

By Linda on 2013 07 09, 8:00 pm CDT

I don't know! I am only a little old law professor, not the dean or the associate dean.

And we were talking I thought about the changes we made two years ago, not in the years before. I conceded in earlier posts that the numbers for the class of 2011 were probably accurate. But many of the students who did not get renewal knew that they had to attain a certain gpa or be in the top X % of their first year class to keep the scholarship. Few then complained if they did not attain the required gpa (other than the usual gripes about an individual grade). No one started a riot or led a student revolt; most students simply accepted that they hadn't done what was required and then tried to earn one of the other merit scholarships for later semesters. I doubt that any or at least many schools published percentages back then on the number who lost scholarships for lack of adequate achievement. As I pointed out, we realized the problem ourselves and took steps to both offer the option of a guaranteed scholarship and a conditional one, and also eased the mandatory first year curve to help more scholarship students keep their aid. And we also have given some who did not meet the condition lesser amounts, even as we dropped the full scholarship.

Now tell us about you, and your background and why you are so agitated about all this, and why you resorted to defamatory comments?.

By Ralph Brill on 2013 07 09, 8:29 pm CDT

Hey Linda? How about answering my questions?

By Ralph Brill on 2013 07 09, 10:15 pm CDT

Please keep in mind that comments should be on-topic, and that we do not allow personal attacks.

- <b>Lee Rawles
Web Producer</b>

By Lee Rawles on 2013 07 09, 11:00 pm CDT

If you think this is a personal attack, I don't agree, but I do apologize. But I didn't notice any admonishment to Linda, whomever she is, for defaming my school, asserting it was a scammer.

By Ralph Brill on 2013 07 09, 11:11 pm CDT

I agree. Standing up for your school is more "business" than "personal," and ought to get a certain amount of Lee-way (so to speak) when a poster has made express accusations that may not be supported.

By B. McLeod on 2013 07 09, 11:41 pm CDT

Is there a list of the schools that award scholarships without any conditions?

By Doc on 2013 07 10, 12:50 am CDT

It is interesting to me to see my school, Stetson, on the "good" list with a 100% retention rate. As I recall, our scholarship policies were fairly similar: merit based, 3.0 GPA requirement (or at least close, I can't recall). I wonder why our students were all retaining their scholarships instead of losing them left and right. I'm sure the 3.0 curve helped, but that can't be the entire story.

By Dan on 2013 07 12, 11:26 am CDT

Actually, in some places it has to do with the fact that everyone is graded on a curve, and therefore staying in the "top 20%" or "top 30%" etc. gets to be extremely arbitrary. For instance, I had a GPA .03 lower than a classmate, but there were 20 ranks between us in a class of 140. Yes, you read that correctly, point ZERO three. I knew several people who lost scholarships based on their place in the class, but was unaware of any scholarships actually based on GPA. Only one person who lost one of these "bait and switch" scholarships actually left, though, so retention rate isn't the whole story either. (The size of one's student loan, on the other hand...) So, agree it's not an apples to apples situation, but there is definitely a lot of gamesmanship to get students to come and pay full freight after they lose their conditional scholarships.

By NCLawyer on 2013 07 12, 12:36 pm CDT

No question but lower-ranked law schools, in an effort to ratchet up all-important USNews rankings, dangle scholarship carrots to attract higher LSAT scores. The question is whether school or student is to blame for presumably more able students not being able to mount the hurdle of maintaining a B average, particularly in a C-curve school.

The larger question is why heretofore "A" students, despite considerable grade inflation in law schools in recent years, stumble badly grade wise in law school. In order to satisfy school-mandated requirements for 20-30 percent A's at some few top-ranked schools -- think UPenn, UTexas Law -- A-'s (the new B+) have proliferated in recent years. However, it is still pretty hard to get a solid A in any law school.

The reason surely is not lack of motivation or intelligence on the part of students. With rare exceptions law students apply themselves diligently. Those in question here, possessed of higher LSAT scores (although, as it does not factor into USNews rankings, sometimes a mediocre college GPA, suggesting a slacker), should be smart enough to get at least B's.

Some comments above reflect the consensus view that law school is hard, the material is not susceptible to the normal apply-yourself-do-well academic equation. Indeed, the supposition is widespread that doing well in law school -- getting rare A's -- requires more than intelligence and hard work. It requires something innate, a rare genius for the law!

Which is nonsense. Students struggle in law school because case method instruction, popularized by Christopher Columbus Langdell, influential dean of Harvard Law School over a century ago, is ineffective in training and inculcating the close, nitpicking, apply-element-of-a-legal-precept-to-a-nuance-of-fact mindset of the practicing attorney. I.e., that magical necessary quality for impressing on law essay exams, referred to as "think like a lawyer" and "lawyerlike analysis," is not instructed by briefing appellate cases (where facts are never contested!), and bullsh------g about them in an academic setting not so different from college or graduate school.

Lawyers are made, not born, and law school doesn't produce lawyers. Those of us who have practiced law know that we became lawyers AFTER we left law school -- via practice.

Law essay exams are exercises in performing "as a lawyer," albeit, given the confused facts and time pressure, on steroids. However smart and diligent, students come to law school as academic thinkers and learners. (Very successful academic thinkers and learners!) Nothing about case method instruction moves them from this loosey-goosey posture to the more (client) goal-oriented, disciplined, law-fact-focused thought process of the practicing attorney.

Heck. Most professors at top-ranked law schools haven't practiced much law. (Average time practicing of recent professor hires is less than two years, and that includes the obligatory clerkship.) Professors think as academics. Many have Ph.D.'s. They blah blah about what the law should or should not be, is it a good law or bad law -- academics! Then they give an exam that says, "perform as a (practicing) lawyer under (normally) severe time pressure." Clueless students are blindsided.

In short, what happens in a law school classroom has little relevance to what is required on time-pressured essay exams. Students fail to transition from academic thinker/learner to (practicing) attorney thinker/learner. (The words "lawyer" and "attorney" are rarely heard in a law school classroom!) Everyone knows that law schools don't train lawyers. (Future law professors, perhaps, but not lawyers.)

That, not some evil calculation on the part of law schools, is the explanation for smarter students getting C's and losing their scholarships.

Bait and switch? ... No. Just a colossal farce of teaching, if preparing students for exams, law practice, "thinking as a lawyer" is the objective.

By LEEWSFounder on 2013 07 12, 12:38 pm CDT

This is what happens when you follow a true grading curve. Need a 3.0 to maintain your scholarship? Sorry but at least half of the class isn't getting that their 1L year. And yes the math does work because a lot of people who didn't make a 3.0 weren't offered scholarships to begin with therefore never lost one.

By You call this coffee!? on 2013 07 12, 4:15 pm CDT

I was an A student in law school, (major surprise), and passed the bar first time out before graduating (super amazing surprise). Despite the license to practice, only than did I realize that I knew a lot about the law, but nothing about being a lawyer. That only came with years of experience and a lot of mentoring from those who had been lawyers a lot longer than I had. Thank heaven for those mentors!

By hedgelaw on 2013 07 12, 5:19 pm CDT

To Professor Brill and Linda -

I started at Chicago Kent in 2008 and graduated in 2011. I received a scholarship for about half my tuition. I do not recall any option for a non-conditional scholarship, so I cannot confirm whether that option was offered in 2008 or earlier. I do not have any recollection of being told by Chicago-Kent that it would be statistically impossible for all scholarship recipients to keep their scholarships, although I figured that out at some point after the beginning of the school year after talking to 2L and 3L students. Fortunately for me, I ended up on the right side of that statistic.

However, I will note that there was a very widespread rumor that the scholarship recipients were mostly placed into a single section in order to purposely minimize the number of students who would be able to retain their scholarships. Dean Solwe denied this was the school's practice and, other than anecdotal evidence (i.e. most of my section classmates claimed to have scholarships), there is no publicly-available evidence of this.

Although Chicago Kent probably complied with the letter of the law, I do not think that the whole honest picture was provided to incoming students - not only with respect to the scholarship retention rates, but also as to employment statistics/job placement. Now, of course it can be argued that Chicago-Kent's actions were no different than that of most other law schools, but the motherly admonition regarding one's friends jumping off of bridges does come to mind.

I don't think it is unreasonable for some students to feel that Chicago-Kent painted a rosier picture than reality supported. When you are asking a customer/student to mortgage their future by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and three years of their life to buy your product, let's just say you better deliver 100% if you want to completely avoid criticism and accusations of being a "scammer."

By A. S. on 2013 07 12, 10:02 pm CDT

Dear A.S.

I wish posters would not hide behind anonymity when they make accusations that are defamatory.

I can assure you that the rumor you refer to about stacking the deck by putting all the conditional scholarship people in one section was not true. We have three day sections of the 1L classes and the admissions office distributes the high LSATs (usually the basis for the larger scholarships) across all three sections evenly. But some students might have partial scholarships and be in a section with others who had full or larger scholarships. So, it is possible that a lot of your classmates weren't lying when they said they had scholarships. Whether they were large, conditional ones, or they were recipients of some specialized ones (like residents of a certain county for one donated by an alum from that county, I can't say. But those who lost their scholarships at the end of one year were told that that might happen if they didn't achieve a certain g.p.a. In recent years we have increased the mandatory first year curve to make it more likely that these conditional scholars would continue to receive the scholarships, and would have to do truly badly to lose them. In addition, as I said before, we now have scholarships that are lesser in amount but guaranteed, and not conditional. I don't have the hard data for you. Sorry. But rumors of things by law students are prevalent everywhere. I know some students even repeated as true rumors that they thought I was a poor teacher --- we know that isn't true. :)

By Ralph Brill on 2013 07 13, 2:21 am CDT

Dear Professor Brill,

Anonymity is the best part of the Internet (aside from LOLcats), as it allows free expression without fear of backlash. People have been using "handles" instead of their real names since this glorious series of tubes was invented by Al Gore. Regardless, none of my comments are defamatory. I crafted them carefully to avoid Linda's fate. It is certainly not my intent to "defame" Chicago Kent, but merely to express my opinions on this topic.

Again, as I stated, the rumor of deck-stacking is just a rumor, and there is no publicly available evidence to either prove or disprove it. I did not state it was true - I just said it was a rumor that I had heard, and which Dean Solwe denied.

I absolutely will not dispute that scholarship recipients were aware that they had to attain a particular GPA to keep their scholarship. To me, at least, that was made crystal clear. However, that is entirely different from informing students that it would be statistically impossible for every student to keep their scholarships, so that no matter how hard they studied, they were playing a zero-sum game.

I am pleased to hear that the policy has been changed to allow more students to keep their scholarships. Whether the impetus for the policy change was Kent's own generosity or the ABA's new reporting rules, I have no clue whatsoever.

By A. S. on 2013 07 13, 2:49 am CDT

I held my merit scholarship throughout school, finishing either just inside or just outside the top third of my class.

However, I know that the classes weren't stacked with scholarship recipients all in the same section, because I know how the sections were constructed. 1L students were grouped by their zip codes, to facilitate formation of study groups.

This information is provided to those students who attend the spring preview. I can't remember if it was also provided during 1L weekend (the first weekend of school, before regular classes start, that was mandatory for 1L's.

By James Pollock on 2013 07 13, 4:45 am CDT

Unfortunately, this country today is mostly about worthlessness and transfer of personal responsibility. We encourage every washout in every field to wallow in self-pity and find someone else to blame, rather than moving on to find something he or she can actually do well (assuming there is an option other than "whine"). Hence, grads who find they have missed the Golden Wonka Ticket are quick to seize upon any rumor or theory that assigns the blame to a conspiracy by others rather than to their own stupidity, laziness, unfitness or lack of discipline.

By B. McLeod on 2013 07 13, 1:18 pm CDT

I don't recall hearing about the zip code thing, and in my section people were from all over the city.
Was that at Chicago Kent?

By A. S. on 2013 07 13, 1:33 pm CDT

Glad to see W&L continuing to kickass

By W&L Law 2004 on 2013 07 14, 8:30 pm CDT

Congratulations to Liberty University School of Law; you rock.

By LUSOL Class of 2013 on 2013 07 17, 2:06 pm CDT

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