Law Schools

Affluent students get law school merit scholarships while others foot the bill, study finds

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Law schools have become more generous with merit scholarships, and the money has been flowing to privileged students whose parents are college-educated, according to a report released by the Law School Survey of Student Engagement.

Individuals whose parents had no college experience were the least likely to receive merit scholarships, according to the study, titled Law School Scholarship Policies: Engines of Inequity (PDF).

Basing merit determinations on LSAT results—90 percent of the respondents with merit awards had LSAT scores above 165—is an instigator, according to Frank H. Wu, a University of California Hastings College of Law professor who wrote the the survey’s foreword. Wu argues that LSAT scores can be a performance predictor but don’t necessarily demonstrate merit.

“Everyone is on the side of merit. There are no advocates for mediocrity. But so called merit scholarships are less about students’ merit than they are about our own sense of elitism,” he wrote.

A better way to reward merit, according to Wu, would be to base determinations on law school work. He blames law school rankings for schools’ heavy reliance on LSAT scores, and he describes the current merit scholarship trend as a “’reverse Robin Hood’ revenue model,” where “the poorest students are being forced to subsidize their wealthier peers.”

“Instead of identifying talented individuals who lack resources—the ‘strivers’ we claim to admire—we are reinforcing economic hierarchy. We are sending the message that those who already have so much deserve so much more,” Wu wrote.

Out of 17,820 law students surveyed in 2016, the study found that 79 percent of scholarships awarded to respondents were merit-based. Among those with merit scholarships, 65 percent of respondents had at least one parent who had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Comparatively, 19 percent of respondents received need-based scholarships.

“Narrow conceptions of merit ensure that scholarship funds flow more generously to students most likely to come from privileged backgrounds—leaving students from disadvantaged backgrounds bearing more of the risks associated with attending law school,” Aaron Taylor, a Saint Louis University School of Law professor and director of the survey, wrote in a statement. “The end result is a cascade of negative outcomes, including a perverse cost-shifting strategy through which disadvantaged students subsidize the attendance of their privileged peers. This is the hallmark of an inequitable system.”

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