Paul L. Caron

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Merritt:  Law School Rankings Drive Inequitable Merit Scholarship Awards

Merit ScholarshipBloomberg Law op-ed: Law School Rankings Still Drive Scholarship Awards, by Deborah Jones Merritt (Ohio State):

It’s an open secret in legal education: Law schools substantially discount tuition for selected students. Classmates sitting side by side pay very different amounts for the same seminars and lectures. Some pay full tuition; some pay a reduced amount; a lucky few pay nothing at all.

The Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), a highly regarded research team, has just focused a spotlight on this practice. The researchers pull no punches: They title their report Law School Scholarship Policies: Engines of Inequity. Aaron Taylor, the group’s director, notes that law schools’ scholarship policies have created a system “in which the most disadvantaged students subsidize the attendance of their peers.” This “reverse Robin Hood” pattern arises from two factors.

First, schools focus on LSAT scores, rather than economic need, when awarding scholarships. “Put simply,” Taylor’s team concludes, “a high LSAT score is the surest path to receiving . . . a lucrative scholarship.” Almost four-fifths of law school scholarships depend heavily on LSAT scores.

Second, most of these “scholarships” reflect the reallocation of tuition dollars, rather than the contributions of alumni or other supporters. Schools announce high tuition rates, which they collect from students with the lowest test scores. Dollars from those students help fund discounted tuition for classmates with higher scores.

This focus on test scores hurts minority applicants, as well as those from economically disadvantaged background. As the LSSSE report documents, applicants from both groups record lower LSAT scores than more privileged applicants. As a result, the most disadvantaged pay higher prices for access to legal education. Compounding the inequity, the disadvantaged subsidize the education of their more advantaged classmates.

The LSAT scores that underlie this process, meanwhile, do not adequately capture students’ “merit.” Those scores predict first-year law school grades, but the predictions are far from perfect. Truly merit-driven scholarships would incorporate a wider range of factors. Still better, schools could reserve the bulk of their scholarship dollars for students who demonstrate economic need—or for those who prove their excellence in law school itself.

Why do law schools tie so many scholarships to performance on a single multiple-choice test, rather than addressing financial need or rewarding law school performance? Opening doors for disadvantaged students doesn’t raise a school’s rank in the U.S. News sweepstakes. Neither does rewarding excellent performance by students already enrolled in law school. LSAT scores, on the other hand, directly affect a school’s rank. To bolster their rank, law schools offer scholarships to applicants with high LSAT scores. Other considerations take a back seat. ...

The LSSSE findings, however, are especially troubling given the ABA’s recent decision to delay — and perhaps forestall — a proposal to make schools more accountable for their bar passage results. Opponents of the proposal argued that greater accountability might reduce the number of minority students attending law school; the ABA House of Delegates seemed to heed those claims.

But appeals to diversity ring hollow when schools pursue scholarship policies that disproportionately burden minority students. Law schools with low bar passage rates invoke diversity to justify admitting students who have little chance of passing the bar. But do those schools award scholarships to these at-risk students? Law schools turn their backs on diversity if they reserve scholarships for the most privileged students in their classes. They openly mock diversity if they force disadvantaged students to subsidize those privileged classmates.

Legal Education | Permalink


Anons ad hominem response is exactly why schools use merit scholarships.

Law schools get blamed for helping students who are at risk have better but still not great outcomes.

And law schools get credit for helping students who are destined for greatness be even more successful.

Until we start evaluating law schools based on value added conditional on incoming student characteristics, and instead focus on raw outcomes, law schools will always use merit scholarships.

There's nothing evil about it. You get more of what you reward.

Posted by: Merritt against Merit | Feb 14, 2017 8:24:54 AM

@Diane Klein,

Sorry, I mean no offense, but La Verne dismally performs on just about every meaningful measure known to mankind...It is one of the least regarded law schools in the U.S. for good reason. That everyone pays the same price for a La Verne scarlet letter on their resume is not cause for jubilation. I guess we'll just have to disagree about what "opportunity" means: subprime mortgages provided plenty of "opportunity" for those otherwise shut out from the American Dream of home ownership. I see parallels.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 12, 2017 3:13:29 PM

Not my school. Here at the University of La Verne College of Law, under the "True Tuition" implemented by Dean Gil Holmes, everyone pays the same amount. Yes, you read that right. We are an opportunity law school, not a highly selective one. But our highest-credentialed students pay the same as the others - no one subsidizes anyone. We hope our rising tide will lift all boats, and our commitment to diversity is real.

Posted by: Diane Klein | Feb 12, 2017 8:48:31 AM

Let's be clear: law school administrative choices drive inequity. There are 75 law schools in the bottom 75 with no reasonable hope of moving up in the rankings, yet those schools engage in the same practices!

Sorry, no rankings cop out. Law schools themselves are squarely to blame for the evils they perpetrate. STOP MAKING EXCUSES!

Posted by: Anon | Feb 11, 2017 11:46:07 AM