The vast majority of law school scholarships—79 percent—are doled out based on Law School Admission Test scores and undergraduate grades rather than financial need, a new study has found.
That means minority students, who on average score lower on the LSAT, are essentially subsidizing the educations of their more prosperous white classmates and racking up higher law school debt in the process, according to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement's latest annual report, titled "Law School Scholarship Policies: Engines of Iniquity."
Some legal educators have been alarmed for years over the rise of this so-called "reverse Robin Hood" effect, which they say is fueled by the U.S. News & World Report rankings because it rewards schools for admitting students with high LSAT scores and grades. But the new study, based on surveys of more than 16,000 law students at 67 schools, offers more detail on the distribution of scholarships and the impact on disadvantaged students.
Law schools are offering more financial aid than ever before, in part to lure students amid a shrinking applicant pool, but the bounty has not been spread evenly, according to Aaron Taylor, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and director of the study.
"We all know anecdotally and from personal experiences that the LSAT is the surest path to admission to law school and to a lucrative scholarship," Taylor said in an interview Thursday. "But to see how the numbers are out laid and how, in lockstep fashion, higher LSAT scores are associated with higher chances of receiving merit scholarships, it illustrates the issue more definitively."
The Law School Survey of Student Engagement, conducted by Indiana University's Center for Postsecondary Research, annually polls students about their experience on campus, focusing in on different topics.
Law school scholarship policies create financial inequality on campus that leads to long-term economic disparities, the study concludes, particularly for minority and first-generation law students. Law schools should rethink how they mete out scholarship funds, it recommends.
"Real scholarships are funded by donors, endowments, and sources other than the student seated next to the recipient," wrote Frank Wu, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in a blistering foreword to the new study.
Merit scholarships are sales gimmicks, and across-the board tuition reductions would bring down overall cost, Wu wrote.
But cutting costs for all doesn't necessarily solve the problem, Taylor said.
"In my mind, the core problem is one of equity," he said. "Students come in with different needs. Equity means giving more money to people who need more money, and less money to people who don't need the money. I don't know if discounting tuition across the board would really get to the problem."
The study found that 71 percent of the students surveyed received some form of scholarship. Of those, 79 percent were "merit based," while 21 percent were "need based." The distribution of merit-based scholarships was tied closely to the recipient's LSAT score — 90 percent of respondents with LSAT scores of 166 or higher got those scholarships, compared with 16 percent for those with scores of 140 or lower.
The distribution of merit-based scholarships also varied by race. Sixty-seven percent of white students and 61 percent of Asian students received merit-based scholarships, compared to 52 percent of Latino students and 49 percent of black students. The black and Latino students surveyed also reported lower LSAT scores overall than white and Asian respondents.
Similarly, students whose parents went to college were more likely to receive merit scholarships than first-generation students whose parents didn't have a high school diploma or didn't finish college. Hence, the students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds on the whole pay more to attend law school than their wealthier classmates.
Unsurprisingly, black and Latino students were bracing for higher student debt burdens. Among Latinos, 57 percent expected to have more than $100,000 in law school debt, as did 53 percent of black respondents. Meanwhile, just 38 percent of white students anticipated a debt load of $100,000 or more. That figure was 40 percent among Asian students.
Last year's Law School Survey of Student Engagement highlighted law student debt levels as well as stress. It concluded that high debt correlates to more stress, and minority students were on the high end of both measures.
The latest study also touches on how merit scholarships affect a student's overall law school experience. Recipients of merit scholarships reported slightly higher satisfaction levels and lower stress than those who didn't get such scholarships.
Pushing law schools to overhaul their approach to scholarships won't be easy given the heavy influence of the U.S. News rankings, Taylor said. But if a critical mass of schools opted to redirect scholarship funds to those with the most financial need at the same time, any impact on their ranking would be relatively small, he said.
"When we offer admission to students, we're making a commitment to help facilitate their long-term success," Taylor said. "That's something we should appreciate and emphasize in legal education."