Law schools like to brag about the number of scholarships they give. Tuition is soaring, but schools will be quick to point out that sticker price is often not the true price of attendance. Some students receive full scholarships, many receive partial scholarships. And, on the back end schools fund public interest jobs and loan repayment assistance programs.
For instance, NYU recently highlighted its generosity by pointing to the number of graduates in public interests jobs they funded. The school provided $2000 a month plus loan repayment assistance, valued at an average of another $1000 a month. Sounds really nice, way to go, Ricky.
Law schools will also brag about their public policy initiatives, how students are working on overturning wrongful convictions, or doing critical research in environmental regulations.
It’s all very well and good, but the problem is what schools omit from the picture, the source of the funding. Scholarship money doesn’t come from the school, and neither does LRAP. These generous programs are funded mostly by your fellow students. Some of the money comes from donors, aka: former students.
The money doesn’t come from the school. When a professor publishes a book, written with research funding and a sabbatical provided by the university, he doesn’t turn the royalties over to a school run scholarship trust. No, that goes in to his pocket. When donor funds dip, professors don’t reach in to their own pockets to help make up the difference. Nope, they raise tuition on the students or reduce the amount of scholarships.
This cross-subsidization between students, one student paying for another student to be there, can have a terrible impact on the culture of a law school. The school doesn’t want you, it wants your money which it plans on using to recruit some other student that it really does want. And then the school tells you to form study groups with each other, act as academic equals.
I don't mean that this does happen, but that it can, that there is potential for it. This division of the Haves and Have-Nots-Because-Now-Someone-Else-Does-Have isn’t really part of the law school experience right now, and that’s because no one was really conscious of it. But, scholarships are coming under greater scrutiny and the idea of charging some students more to fund the free education of other students is starting to look a bit distasteful as tuition rates soar.
And it will only get worse. As fewer people are interested in law school and fewer people take the LSAT, the number of top students will decrease. As there are fewer kids with LSATs north of 165 or 170, competition to recruit them will become more fierce. Supply and demand. Lower supply, same demand, higher price. And that’s a price that will be paid by students with LSATs and GPAs below the median.
The combination of increased prices, increased inter-student wealth transfer, and increased awareness of what exactly is going on has the potential the sour the law school experience, adding an economic divide to a student body that is already hyper competitive.
It won’t necessarily happen, and perhaps the students who feel the class division will be small. But, if you do happen to get a great scholarship (and it’s hard to imagine why you should go to law school without one), you’ll get to go through law school knowing that your classmates have mortgaged their futures to put you there. Maybe you're an emotionless asshole who just doesn't care; maybe you comfort yourself with the thought that those students know exactly what they're getting themselves in to. But if you're a decent person with a little bit of empathy for your classmates, you're going to feel a bit sick about the whole situation.
And whether you get a scholarship or not, either way you're going to have to deal with an administration that loudly and frequently congratulates itself on being so generous with other people's money.