Forbes: The Ethics of Law School Merit Scholarships, by Michael Krauss (George Mason):
What can be wrong with giving scholarships to the meritorious? A meritorious society is a just society, right? Giving money according to “worth” seems way better, ethically, than giving to the well-connected, or to those of a favored race or religion, right?
Well, maybe. But then again, sometimes maybe not.
The problem of law school merit scholarships is a complicated and nuanced one, especially for those who have not considered it at length. In brief, here are five background points underlying the ethical conundrum I will subsequently sketch out:
- Law Schools, like car dealerships, have list prices for their wares. ...
- But in reality not everyone pays list price. ... Law Schools always want to attract the “best” students, and one way to attract them is to price discriminate, i.e., to offer discounts from list.
- U.S. News and World Report rankings are so influential that they have become the cart driving the law school admissions horse. USNWR has homogenized our understanding of student value. ... The higher the median LSAT and GPA scores of the admitted student body, the higher a law school’s ranking will be. ... Rising ranking thus stimulates a “virtuous circle” while falling ranking leads to a “vicious circle” that, if left unattended, can result what some fear to be a “death spiral.” Buying better students is one attempt to move from a vicious circle to a virtuous one.
- Today, law jobs are quite hard to come by for many law school grads, and law school tuition as risen so high during the boom years that many grads are saddled with student loans they have great difficulty repaying. ...
- In our increasingly meritorious nation, the cream has often already risen to the top. The wealthy tend to be smarter and better educated than the poorer – and they tend to have children who are smarter and better educated than are the children of poorer parents.
These five factors play out in predictable ways. At super-elite law schools (Yale/Harvard/Stanford, etc.), virtually all students have stellar LSAT and GPA scores. Those with such scores are willing to pay list price for the experience, the contacts and the credential these Brahmin schools provide – and these schools can therefore eliminate merit scholarships and admit selectively based on criteria other than LSAT and GPA. [Did you rise from humble beginnings? Did you overcome your physical handicap and climb Everest, writing a Pulitzer-winning account of your exploit?] But at most schools, merit scholarships will be offered to the high LSAT and GPA scorers among applicants to that school. Most schools must pay to lure those scorers away from other, equally or possibly higher-ranked schools that are bidding for their attendance. And those merit scholars will tend to be more intelligent and from tonier zip codes than lower-ranked admittees to the same law school. ...
The upshot of all this is that, at most law schools, price discrimination results in poorer, less well-educated students “subsidizing” (paying higher tuition than) richer, better-educated students. For their subsidy, poorer students are penalized a second time at graduation – because the subsidized richer students will tend to finish at the top of the class and get better paying jobs, while the poorer students will find it harder and harder to find employment to pay for their higher student loans. Thus are “list price” payers made to seem to be chumps over and over again, while the recipients of merit scholarships laugh, as it were, all the way to the bank.
This looks in many ways like a classic regressive tax. ...
Law professors are, for the most part, lawyers, and we are bound ethically to make access to our profession accessible to qualified and interested people. Have we done this by setting up a system that transfers resources from the more to the less needy? If so, perhaps we need to rethink what we are doing.