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Bait and Switch? Law Schools Gain in US News with Merit Scholarships Conditioned on High Grades

Posted May 2, 2011 7:34 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Several first-year law students at Golden Gate law school are using the phrase “bait and switch” to describe the school’s grant offers that are conditioned on maintaining B averages.

One student who graduated from the school in 2009, Alexandra Leumer, received $30,000 her first year, the full cost of tuition, the New York Times reports. Her grades and test scores were above the median for the school, and she thought a B average wouldn’t be that much of a challenge. After her first year, however, she missed the mark with a 2.967 grade average.

“How hard could a 3.0 be?” the Times asks. “Really hard, it turned out. That might have been obvious if Golden Gate published a statistic that law schools are loath to share: the number of first-year students who lose their merit scholarships. That figure is not in the literature sent to prospective Golden Gate students or on its website.”

Law schools use grant programs to attract the best students possible in hopes of improving their U.S. News rankings, the story says, but too often students are unaware of “the perils of the merit scholarship game.” Schools in the last decade have been on a “giveaway binge,” the article says, citing ABA data from 2009 showing that more than 25 percent of law students had merit scholarships.

Golden Gate isn’t the only law school with grade requirements, the Times says. About 80 percent of law schools have merit stipulations, known as “stips.” The grade minimums are a 3.2 at the University of Florida, a 3.25 at Wayne State University, a 3.0 at George Washington University, and a 2.95 at the Benjamin N. Cardozo law school. Chicago Kent has different options, including a $9,000 annual scholarship without grade restrictions and a $15,000 grant with a 3.25 grade requirement for students to receive the full amount. Meanwhile, the number of aid-based scholarships has dropped to 18,000 from 20,000 five years before.

Students contemplating a school offering a scholarship should check out its median grade and how many others are also getting money, the story says. Many law schools have more classes graded on a curve during the first year than the second and third.

The group Law School Transparency, which backs better reporting of jobs statistics for law grads, has submitted a proposal to the ABA Section of Legal Education to require law schools to publish their law school scholarship retention data. Details are at Law School Transparency's website.

Both the group and the Times cite a new research paper on the issue by University of St. Thomas law professor Jerry Organ. He also endorses better disclosure.

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