Sunday, September 8, 2013

Real numbers applied to the bait and switch of law school conditional "scholarships" **UPDATED**

One of the dirty not-so-secrets of the law school business model is the conditional scholarship game.  Every year, "desirable" applicants (relative to the law school they are applying to, for example, a student with a 160 is desirable enough for a lower-tier school to shell out serious bucks, while such a student would be looked at as a federal loan trophy at a different school) are given incentives to attend a certain law school.

Students with above median LSAT/GPA for the law school are often given conditional "scholarships" in return for their attendance (as opposed to "guaranteed" or scholarships requiring only good standing), that is to say that if they maintain a certain GPA or class rank percentage (which are essentially the same thing, depending on where the school sets their curve), they get to keep their scholarship. For example, as a naive 0L, two schools offered me scholarships: one said I had to retain a 3.0, one said that I had to be in the top-third of my class.  I thought it would be easier to maintain a 3.0, so that factored into my decision to attend that law school, even though only about a third of students at that law school are given 3.0's or above.

A couple years ago the New York Times had a great article that outlined how the students who lose their scholarship after their first year still pay dividends to the law school, through their higher rate of bar passage rates and their increased tuition revenue that they provided the school after losing their scholarships.

In response to the outcry prompted by articles like the one from the NYT, the calls for greater transparency, and the criticisms of law school's misleading employment statistics, the ABA did something right with their new Standard 509.  As of this year, law schools must publish "complete, accurate, and not-misleading" information regarding the employment prospects of their graduates, bar passage rates and the like, and scholarship retention rates of their students (however, the ABA conveniently omits the requirement for salary data). 

Because of Standard 509, aggregate reports of how many students lose their scholarships are now available.  According to TaxProf Blog (via National Jurist), 69% of law students kept their conditional scholarships.  Prominently displayed on the page are the schools with the worse retention rates:

Fortunately, law school exams came easy to me compared to my peers, and I was easily able to retain my conditional scholarship. Both at my school and across the country, however, thousands of law students lost their conditional scholarships.  Losing a full scholarships amounts to an extra $80,000-90,000 in high-interest, nondischargeable student loans at my school.

Because of Section 509, it is easier to see the bait and switch.  Before, it was only people who knew how grade distributions in law schools were set up and how conditional scholarships synergized with them.  Due to that, most of the people onto the bait and switch were either current/former law students or hyper-informed prospective law students who frequent websites such as Top-Law-Schools.

At least now schools have to publish their numbers.  But how hard is it to find the raw data that prospective students need to see on scholarship retention?  Let's look at University of Akron, which tied for having the lowest retention rate of conditional scholarships in the country.

Finding the information at the University of Akron, one of the nine law schools in the economically stagnant state of Ohio, was actually surprisingly easy for me.  Perhaps it is because I know the "code words," but I'll let you judge.  You go to their website: click on "Prospective Students," and click on "Important Consumer Information."

From there all you have to do is click on "Scholarship Retention Data," where the damning information showing that of 113 people in 2011 who came in with scholarships, 89 had their scholarship reduced or removed.  Helpfully, the law school notes that "No. Students Whose Conditional Scholarships Have Since Been Reduced or Eliminated" figure in the rightmost column does not include students who met the renewal criteria of our conditional scholarship but chose not to continue their legal studies."

Even more helpfully, however, is the information showing the breakdown of the conditional scholarship retention rate:

While I am not going to "break" any big news about Akron's strategy with their conditional scholarship program (like the fantastic reporting done on the University of Illinois' fall-man and his wife a couple weeks ago), this makes me curious on who they are actually giving scholarships to.  Full-time LSAT/GPA medians for 2011 are 157/3.63, 155/3.32, and 152/3.12.  Akron isn't scraping quite the bottom of the barrel like other Midwestern diploma mills are.

As I stated above, most law schools give scholarships to students who have LSAT and GPA above the medians.  GPA and LSAT scores are correlated to class rank.  In the video below, scroll to 15 minutes and note how the Professor Johnson shows the correlation between LSAT and class rank at law schools (the video itself could be an entire blog post or multiple blog posts, but for the purposes here it is to highlight how high performance on LSAT/GPA relative to peers increases your chances of being in the upper ranks for law school, at least if you have a decently higher LSAT than the median.  For reference, my LSAT is about 10 points higher than the median at my school, and a friend who has a similar scholarship is also 10 points above).

That is enough for me for now, enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

For further reading on conditional scholarships, read Professor Jerry Organ's post at LegalWhiteboard.

UPDATE: I was being lazy and did not read Akron's numbers close enough.  The reason their retention rate is so ridiculously low is because they only give full renewal to people who score in the top 10-15% of the class.  I foolishly assumed that this school would do the typical top third cutoff point.  Instead they stack the odds incredibly against the students on conditional scholarships.


  1. this is a great post. probably the best one in my opinion. i didnt finish reading it, but the fact that you referenced that UVA video and the NYT article was enough for me. and the term "hyper-informed," which describes why I didn't even bother studying for the LSAT even though I planned out the studying routine for.

    i remember the first time i read that NYT article and I almost threw up. First time in my life i ever felt repulsed reading an article.

  2. Great post. I'm not surprised to see Hofstra on the list. Nora Demleitner was running a merit scholarship bait and switch when I was at Hofstra. I knew a lot of people who lost their scholarships. How can law schools expect to turn out ethical graduates when they're not ethical themselves? Do as I say, not as I do. Yeah.

  3. And you too can be a debt trophy once they take away your tuition discount.

    And they won't even stuff your head.

  4. Guess what? Law school deans don't like Obama's idea about law school being 2 years:

    I'm shocked!

    1. History repeats itself in more than one way:

      "Dean Michael Sovern of Columbia rejected the scheme [2 years for law school] on the ground that it would increase the supply of lawyers at the very moment THERE WAS A GLUT"

      (all caps added)

    2. The law schools would add a 4th and 5th year to law school if they could. The 5L curriculum would of course prepare students for international human rights practice, litigation involving outer space, and representing sports stars in contract negotiation.

      And the TLS kids would line up for it! They have the wisdom and mental maturity of kindergarteners.

  5. On your last point. "This brings me to my final point about Akron: who are they giving their scholarships to? If they gave most of their scholarships to students who you would expect to be be in the top of their class, they would have a much higher retention rate." I don't know specifically about Akron, but in general, the system is set up so there will be a low retention rate. With the law school curve, there is no way that all the merit scholarship holders can retain their scholarships. In other words, more students get scholarships than can retain them; there just aren't enough spots within the gpa cutoff and the curve.

    1. I made a post slightly disagreeing with this, but your post made me look at Akron's stuff a LOT closer and I realized that they only re-up scholarships to those in the top 10-15%, or a 3.4 at their school.

    2. It's simple. Put all scholarship students in the same section, and grade on a durve within sections. If you are 80th percentile in the scholarship section, you lose your acholarship. If you are #1 in a non-scholarship section, you don't get one. A nice rachet effect.

  6. Don't keep us in suspense. What do you think is going on here? Scholarships being given to those most likely to lose them?

  7. OT but I think worth sharing -

    "Law schools are a kind of a pedagogical North Korea (totally backward, but in a cheerful denial about it): their use of one-time, high-stakes instruments for assessment and the Socratic Method already prove that. The ranking approach is the most insidious one, as it creates incentives not only to compete with your peers, but to actively hurt them. Come to Law School — We’ll turn you into pedagogical Tonya Hardings!"

  8. The real heart of the scam isn't Thom. Cooley, it's schools like McGeorge, Hofstra, Brooklyn, Santa Clara, Chicago-Kent, Catholic, George Mason, etc. Schools that have enough reputation to ensnare quality applicants into high debt/low employment traps.

    1. Amen. That's the truth.

    2. They may be the heart, but the soul of the scam is located at HYS.

      They set the parameters for acceptable pricing and invent the rhetoric to support it.

      They set the tone for curriculum and pedagogy.

      Their acceptance of the 3-yr model makes it unthinkable to change.

      If tomorrow H and Y cut tuition in half, apologized for overcharging, threw away the worthless classes (law and literature), and went to an undergrad or 2-year model --

      THINGS WOULD CHANGE FAST further down the food chain.

  9. To call these discounts "scholarships" is a little misleading to me. Here's one definition of scholarship from

    "a sum of money or other aid granted to a student, because of merit, need, etc., to pursue his or her studies."

    This is probably what scholarship implies to many people - an actual financial grant given to deserving student. Instead the colleges merely give discounts which take their tuition from hugely overpriced to a little less overpriced. And attach all sorts of convoluted terms and conditions to them.

    This is a sleazy sales tactic. Why don't they just reduce their base tuition instead (although if a law school ever did reduce their tuition, I would look carefully to see if they had jacked up their other fees to compensate).

    1. Brian Tamanaha calls these kind of scholarships "reverse robin hood" because it redistributes the discounts from full-sticker paying students with median or below medican credentials to those who are more likely to rank higher, get the better signalers, get the better jobs, etc.

    2. Yes I see how this would work - although I wonder how many students actually pay full sticker. Perhaps the schools offer these discounts to a great many students, knowing this will make them feel like they are getting a bargain (old sales trick). Of course the above median students would get the far better discounts.

      And the term scholarship really has a prestige, a cachet too it. I get the impression at one point these were only offered to the very best and brightest. Perhaps many other people still get that impression to, so when they are offered a "scholarship" it makes them feel like an extra-special snowflake (when in reality its nothing more than a routine discount).

    3. Anon, schools have to publish the amount of students get scholarships.

      Akron's latest publicly available data is here:

      It shows that 232/318, over 2/3, receive scholarships. Most are less than half, and the median grant is 10K.