The cost of law school can be staggering, leaving graduates with massive amounts of debt. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), graduates of public law schools leave with approximately $84,000 in debt, while graduates of private law schools leave with $122,158.
For decades, the high price of law school could be justified with the promise of a commensurately high salary after graduation. Yet around the time of the Great Recession, it became all the more evident that high-paying jobs requiring a law degree were in short supply, making the risk of taking out high levels of debt a less attractive prospect. Law school enrollments peaked in 2010, and subsequently dropped off to 110,951 as of 2016.
“The Recession helped clarify for people that law school is not a ticket to financial security, and that it wasn’t before Recession either,” said Kyle McEntee, executive director and co-founder of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit founded in 2009 that tracks the state of the legal profession and issues in legal education.
Even after weathering the Recession, law schools kept their tuition “sticker price” high, but in the face of declining student applications, began to undercut that sticker price with scholarships. Discounting tuition is a tactic employed not just by law schools, but also by many colleges and universities. As the nominal price of tuition soars beyond the reach of the vast majority of people, schools are incentivized to offer a better financial deal to attract students.
“All of it is shifting money around to try and enroll as many people as possible to maximize either your ranking or survival,” McEntee said.
Yet paradoxically, the primary beneficiaries of the boom in financial aid to law students have not been the most financially needy. Instead, students from the most secure financial backgrounds tend to benefit the most from merit-based scholarships.
Merit scholarships tend to be awarded based on one simple factor: the LSAT score, which is commonly used a predictor of first-year law school grades. The emphasis on the LSAT, McEntee said, “has to do with an increased attention to US News and World Report rankings.” The rankings uses average GPA and LSAT scores as a key metric in their evaluations of individual schools, so bolstering overall averages can help schools raise their profile. At Harvard Law and Yale Law School, for instance, the median score of first-year students entering in 2015 was 173.
Between 2004 and 2010, law schools began investing more money in merit-based aid and less in need-based aid, according to the most recent available data from ABA. Findings from the LSSSE report underscores this trend. Nearly 80 percent of respondents reported receiving merit-based aid.
The correlation between merit scholarships and LSAT score was evident among LSSSE respondents, with 90 percent of those with an LSAT of 165 or above reporting that they received a merit scholarship, compared with 57 percent of those who scored between 151-155. Only 16 percent of respondents with a score of 140 or below reported receiving a merit scholarship.
The result of privileging LSAT scores through merit-based scholarships is what some call a “reverse Robin Hood” effect, in which students from less privileged backgrounds end up shouldering more of the cost of law school. While the trend to give merit-based over need-based aid has been noted for at least the past five years, the recent LSSSE report underscores how LSAT performance is predicated along racial and socioeconomic lines.
The LSSSE report found that a larger proportion of White and Asian students scored a 161 or above on the LSAT than their Black or Hispanic peers.
“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 N. Taylor, LSSSE director and associate professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.