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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Taylor: Law School Scholarships Foist Surtax On The Neediest Students

National Law Journal op-ed:  Law School Scholarships Foist Surtax On Neediest, by Aaron Taylor (St. Louis):

Students with less-educated parents and lower LSAT scores accrue the most debt.

The ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education recently released its report identifying factors driving the high costs of legal education. One factor cited by the task force was law school scholarship policies based on high Law School Admis­sion Test scores, instead of financial need. These policies contribute in large part to high levels of law student debt, particularly among first-generation students. Worse yet, they result in the neediest students paying a tuition premium — a "merit surtax," if you will — that subsidizes the attendance of their wealthier peers.

An analysis of data from the 2014 administration of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement charts how this phenomenon unfolds. The purpose of the analysis was to identify trends relating to the law school experience that were attributable to socioeconomic factors. ... We found that average LSAT scores increased as parental education increased. 

These numbers suggest that respondents with more highly educated parents tended to have an advantage in the admissions process. This is where the merit surtax comes into play. The neediest applicants are doubly disadvantaged. They are least likely to gain admission and, even if admitted, they are least likely to be awarded the most generous scholarships. Student loan debt trends from Law School Survey of Student Engagement support this supposition. Respondents whose parents had lower levels of education were more likely to have law school debt and more likely to have higher levels of that debt. 

The implications of these trends cannot be understated. They foster a system in which those least able to afford law school pay the most — and ­perversely end up subsidizing the attendance of those most able. This merit surtax also has long-term implications. Higher debt levels and varying employment patterns increase the chances that the neediest students will experience difficulty repaying their student loans. A consideration of scholarship policy should be the next frontier of legal education reform. We must consider not only the short-term (and short-­sighted) effects of our scholarship decisions, but also their long-term implications. Rewarding merit, whatever the conception, should not mean saddling the neediest students with the most debt.

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