TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, February 9, 2017

LSSSE:  Law School Merit Scholarship Policies — Engines Of Inequity

LSSSE Logo

Law School Survey of Student Engagement, Law School Scholarship Policies: Engines of Inequity
Frank H. Wu (Former Dean, UC-Hastings), Foreword:

Figure 1The scholarship policies described in this Report ought to be exposed for what they are: sales gimmicks in the form of tuition discounts. Despite their name, “merit scholarships” are neither based on actual merit nor true scholarships. Law schools could reduce the price of attendance across-the-board for the benefit of students, with the same aggregate budgetary effect on institutions. But they have not done so. The reason is that consumers respond to sales; they want deals. Law students are no different; their enrollment decisions often depend on which school offers the biggest “merit scholarship.” 

As this Report highlights convincingly, these selective tuition breaks flow most generously to privileged students. These trends betray our shared ideals of ensuring access to higher education – the engine of the American Dream.

Everyone is on the side of merit. There are no advocates for mediocrity. But socalled merit scholarships are less about students’ merit than they are about our own sense of elitism. The formulas for allocating the scholarships usually blend LSAT and UGPA. Responsible decisionmakers, including those who design standardized tests, warn that these instruments are merely predictors of performance. They should not be confused with merit itself.

Figure 2If law schools wished to reward merit in good faith, they could do so through scholarships to high-performing continuing students – those who have law school records to judge. But the utilitarian calculation which treats students as means to an end suggests that money is better spent on entering students. The latter, not the former, “count” for rankings purposes. The point of the game is to lure new students with credentials that would reflect well in the rankings away from competitors – using tactics similar to the provider of any commodity, such as cell phone service.

If law schools wished to reward merit in good faith, they could do so through scholarships to high-performing continuing students – those who have law school records to judge. But the utilitarian calculation which treats students as means to an end suggests that money is better spent on entering students. The latter, not the former, “count” for rankings purposes. The point of the game is to lure new students with credentials that would reflect well in the rankings away from competitors – using tactics similar to the provider of any commodity, such as cell phone service.

Figure 4Merit scholarships exacerbate entitlement culture. Students understandably believe that they have earned the largesse through a test. Some even think they have done their schools a favor by enrolling. The mindset frames how they engage with their teachers, the administrators, and each other. It likely will influence how they conceive of their role as service professionals who represent others.

Modest reforms have occurred. The American Bar Association has taken action against conditional merit scholarships that were peddled as if guaranteed for the full course of study. Prospective students were being sold on scholarships they were not likely to keep beyond the first year unbeknownst to them. Consumer data protections now give them accurate information to assess these offers.

Yet we still have a system that does not well serve students who are qualified albeit disadvantaged. Over the years at an accelerating pace, American higher education has departed from need-based financial aid. Among law schools, the unprecedented decrease in applicants has hastened this trend. The result has been a “reverse Robin Hood” revenue model in which the poorest students are being forced to subsidize their wealthier peers. Real scholarships are funded by donors, endowments, and sources other than the student seated next to the recipient.

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.

We must do better. The soul of legal education is at stake.

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2017/02/lssselaw-school-merit-scholarship-policies-engines-of-inequity.html

Legal Education | Permalink

Comments

Perhaps the ABA should consider a rule that prohibits merit scholarships for entering 1L students, permitting need-based scholarships for entering 1Ls and all types of scholarships for continuing and transfer students. The problem is a collective action problem; the proposed rule would go a long way towards solving that problem. Current practices benefit schools in proportion to their financial resources; a needs-based-scholarship-only 1L rule would put schools back on a more level playing field with regard to 1L recruiting and make it more likely that schools could reduce nominal tuition without taking a rankings hit.

Posted by: Theodore Seto | Feb 9, 2017 4:56:00 AM

Nothing will change. The reason the "law school is a scam" mantra persists is that it is true. It's a bit hyperbolic, but it is more true than not. Law schools are hellbent on opposing meaningful change, attacking reform proposals, and circling the wagons.

It's only a matter of time until DeVos kills your funding goose. I look forward to watching law school deans whine and moan on msnbc when it happens about "the kids" and "the justice system" which matter to you only when your job is at stake.

Posted by: Jojo | Feb 9, 2017 5:13:25 AM

To preserve both access and standards, a mini-bar exam should be given after first year, determinitive over continuation and scholarships, with those who fail and cannot go forward getting their money refunded. This way, schools and their professors have a performance standard, i.e., retention.

Posted by: Andre L Smith | Feb 9, 2017 7:44:22 AM

The credibility of the law prawf signatories to all the various political letters circulating around is undermined when this sort of thing is going on under their noses at their own institutions.

What a ripe area for social justice action: law schools' own scholarship, and other shady policies, and how they impact access to the legal profession by underrepresented groups who are not only discriminated against by these policies, but who are also unwittingly subsidizing their rich white counterparts' discounts.

This is old news, so I've often wondered why there is no broad outcry from prawfs.
Complicit selective social justice. What a racket.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 9, 2017 10:52:00 AM

"To preserve both access and standards, a mini-bar exam should be given after first year, determinitive over continuation and scholarships, with those who fail and cannot go forward getting their money refunded."

Do people who don't recover after a medical treatment get their money back after they've consumed all those resources? Do you get your money back after you've eaten a meal or seen a movie?

That's not how things work.

Posted by: Right | Feb 10, 2017 6:32:58 AM

First of all, colleges and graduate programs that compete with law schools for students are all doing the exact same thing—offering merit scholarships to people who are likely to be more successful. This isn’t a law school issue—it’s a higher education issue. So unless every graduate school in the world gets on board—not just U.S. law schools—people with high standardized test scores will go elsewhere and we’ll risk seeing a dumbing-down of the legal profession.

Second of all, a rule prohibiting scholarships would raise anti-trust concerns.

Third, it actually makes sense to charge people who have higher standardized test scores less. They learn faster and with less expenditure by the school on remediation. They improve the school’s alumni network. They don’t create bar pass risk or attrition risk. They might be more likely to donate money. They bring something to the table that has value, and not just for U.S. news rankings.

Fourth, when law schools base merit scholarships on law school performance, they get accused of “bait-and-switch” tactics—even though colleges do it too, and law students are less likely to lose their scholarships than college students.

By the time someone from a poor background gets to law school—after decades of substandard education and perhaps not the best upbringing—good luck catching up to the kid from Exeter.

The real moral issue here is why voters haven’t raised taxes enough to provide a high quality education for everyone who is qualified free at the point of service, from prekindergarten through graduate school.

I get that people don’t want to pay taxes, and saying that “my private jet is more important than education for a thousand poor kids” kind of makes you sound selfish.

But the rationalizations and blame shifting that these tax-cutters come up with are pretty lame.


Posted by: merit | Feb 10, 2017 7:10:18 AM

"Respondents with higher LSAT scores were more likely to have received merit scholarships. Ninety percent (90%) of respondents with LSAT scores above 165 received merit scholarships, compared to 57% of respondents with scores of 151-155 and just 16% of respondents with scores of 140 or below."

Show me the law school that is simultaneously admitting lots of 151s and 166s. That's much wider than the 25P-75P range than any law school I've ever heard of.

Isn't this really about different scholarship policies at different law schools which also charge different base tuition levels?

Posted by: Um | Feb 10, 2017 7:51:42 AM

I am shocked and outraged to learn that Asians are more likely to receive scholarships than African Americans. Clearly people whose grandparents grew up in third world countries like China and India had unfair advantages over people whose grandparents grew up in Maryland and Virginia.

Posted by: outrage | Feb 10, 2017 8:00:00 AM

@Merit,

Outside of the already-top law schools, yeah, actually a good portion of the top-scoring students leave after 1L for greener pastures. Take, for instance, the ~50 students who left American for GW, according to GW's most recent Form 509. That's 1 out of 9 American students for that year, transferring to just one other law school. I suspect it wasn't the bottom 11%, either.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Feb 10, 2017 10:26:56 AM