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Rich Students Get Most Merit Scholarships for Law School

The rich get richer in law school, too?

According to recent studies, rich students actually do get richer through merit scholarships. "Law School Scholarship Policies: Engines of Inequity," an annual report from researchers at the University of Indiana, confirms that scholarships more often go to privileged law students than to disadvantaged ones.

"The end-result is a cascade of negative outcomes, including a perverse cost-shifting strategy through which disadvantaged students subsidize the attendance of their privileged peers," said Aaron N. Taylor, director of Law School Survey of Student Engagement. "This is the hallmark of an inequitable system."

The study found, in a survey of 17,820 law students in 2016, that 79 percent of scholarships were awarded to respondents based on merit. Only 19 percent of the respondents received need-based scholarships.

Merit v. Need

Basing merit determinations on LSAT results is part of the problem, according to Frank H. Wu, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law who wrote the forward to the survey. Merit scholarships are good, he said, but they should not be used to attract students to law school but rather to help those who show their merit in law school.

"Instead of identifying talented individuals who lack resources -- the 'strivers' we claim to admire -- we are reinforcing economic hierarchy," Wu said. "We are sending the message that those who already have so much deserve so much more."

The latest survey reinforced previous studies, showing that wealthier students get the lion's share of scholarship money. Taylor, who is also a law professor at St. Louis University, says the statistics suggest "a reverse Robin Hood scheme."

Reverse Robin Hood

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, Taylor said merit scholarships "foist the highest costs on the poorest students."

She said the problem got worse during the recent economic downturn that drove down law school enrollments. To survive, she said, many law schools lowered admissions standards and brought in students who borrowed more money than received scholarships. While more disadvantaged students got into law school, she said, many are not thriving.

"Too many law schools are inducing students to take on debt that under no reasonable set of circumstances will they be able to repay," she wrote. "In the meantime, they are heaping scholarships of increasing amounts on the relatively few high-LSAT scorers still applying to law schools."

Taylor called it an indefensible scheme and called upon law school leaders to revamp their scholarship policies.

"Opportunity devoid of equity is little more than exploitation," she said.

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