LIKE a lot of other college seniors, Alexandra Leumer got her introduction to the heady and hazardous world of law school scholarships in the form of a letter bearing very good news. The Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco had admitted her, the letter stated, and it had awarded her a merit scholarship of $30,000 a year — enough to cover the full cost of tuition.
To keep her grant, all that Ms. Leumer had to do was maintain a grade-point average of 3.0 or above — a B or better. If she dipped below that number at the end of either the first or the second year, the letter explained, she would lose her scholarship for good.
“I didn’t give it much thought,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be a challenge.”
Her grades and test scores were well above the median at Golden Gate, which then languished in the bottom 25 percent of the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings of law schools.
How hard could a 3.0 be? Really hard, it turned out. That might have been obvious if Golden Gate published a statistic that law schools are loath to share: the number of first-year students who lose their merit scholarships. That figure is not in the literature sent to prospective Golden Gate students or on its Web site.
But it’s a number worth knowing. At Golden Gate and other law schools nationwide, students are graded on a curve, which carefully rations the number of A’s and B’s, as well as C’s and D’s, awarded each semester. That all but ensures that a certain number of students — at Golden Gate, it could be in the realm of 70 students this year — will lose their scholarships and wind up paying full tuition in their second and third years.
Why would a school offer more scholarships than it planned to renew?
The short answer is this: to build the best class that money can buy, and with it, prestige. But these grant programs often succeed at the expense of students, who in many cases figure out the perils of the merit scholarship game far too late.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
All of the law bloggers, most of whom are law professors fwiw, are writing about this NY Times story about merit scholarships among some of the nation's (ahem) lower tier law schools. To attract better students, some law schools offer scholarships, sometimes amounting to a full ride, with the proviso that students maintain a B average to keep the scholarship dollars flowing. As maintaining a 3.0 in law school is not the easiest thing to do, many scholarship students find themselves losing their grant money mid-way through school. This is considered scandalous, somehow. I probably wouldn't care normally, but (1) I used a merit scholarship to pay for at least a third of my law schooling and (2) the Times focuses on my alma mater as being an example of What's Wrong With The System. Which of course means (eyes narrowing) this one's personal
Let's get one thing straight. Golden Gate is not an elite law school. I say this with all due respect to my professors and fellow alumni. On a good day, it's maybe a third-tier law school. No one is sitting around right now losing sleep over choosing whether to go to GGU or Stanford Law. There are a couple dozen top law schools that can fill their classes with people who can do the work and pay full freight. Admissions officers at a place like GGU, on the other hand, know that they could easily fill their classes with mediocrities who can't pass the Bar Exam. So they aggressively court students. My God.
Alexandra Leumer, the girl who is the focus of the story, is typical of the sort of today's coddled college graduates who think their (minor) failures should be the subject of a class action lawsuit, or at least a NY Times story. First of all, GGU is absolutely transparent about the fact that you have to keep your grades up in order to keep the scholarship going past the first year. My reaction was "Boy, I better get at least a 3.0!" (incentives, and all that). Leumer, on the other hand, thought "How hard can that be?" Well, it turns out to be pretty hard. And the students who find it hardest are often the ones who walk in thinking it won't be hard. Surprise! This isn't some goofy sociology course where everyone gets an "A" for empathy. Second, and more important, Leumer did not have to pay a penny in tuition for her first year of law school! Honestly, where's the damage here? There's some dark rumbling about how GGU's grade curve essentially "prices out" many scholarship students, but it's not like the professors know who is who when they are grading exams.
I guess if you are Harvard or Yale Law School you can try to pretend that The Law is some kind of noble, elevating cause, but really it's a job and schools like GGU work to prepare people for that job, rather than pretend everybody is a junior Judge Cardozo. It's a much more practical approach to the law that, no doubt, turns off some of the loftier members of the guild and their brothers in the media.