Merit Scholarships and Training for Hierarchy

Posted on Categories Legal Education

When the Critical Legal Studies movement was still vibrant during the 1980s, Harvard Law Professor Duncan Kennedy frequently argued that, beyond exploring the cases and rules, legal education offered training in hierarchy.  Students (and many professors as well) came to appreciate the steps on our social ladders and how to climb or, at least, remain balanced on those steps.  Recent developments involving law schools’ use of merit scholarships with stipulations (“stips,” as some students call them) teach lessons in hierarchy in ways Kennedy never imagined.

The New York Times reported on May 1, 2011, that 80 percent of law schools are now awarding merit scholarships with stipulations and that these scholarships are gradually replacing conventional need-based scholarships.  The University of Florida Law School, for example, requires students to maintain a 3.2 grade-point average to keep their merit scholarships, as does Wayne State University Law School.  At Chicago-Kent Law School, merit scholarship recipients have a choice: They can receive $9000 annually for three years with no stipulations or $15,000 annually if they maintain a 3.25 or higher.  Ninety percent opt for the latter, perhaps unaware that most students earn nothing near a 3.25.

The Times detailed the poignant story of a student at Golden Gate Law School who had been awarded a merit scholarship of $30,000 annually with the stipulation that she maintain a 3.0 or higher.  As fate would have it, she earned B-minus grades in the first semester of torts and of contracts.  She then raised her grades in the second semester but still ended the year with a 2.96.  As a result, she lost her scholarship and faced huge term bills for the remainder of law school.

Some commentators on legal education criticize the use of merit scholarships with stipulations as a “bait and switch” operation.  Others just accept it as something law schools can use to recruit students with the high GPA’s and LSAT scores that can boost U.S. News & World Reports rankings.  Whatever the reaction, this approach to legal education financing is surely powerful training in hierarchy.  Recipients of merit scholarships with stipulations scramble literally to stay ahead of the curve and to rank higher than their classmates, and students who lose their scholarships learn how costly the lower rungs of a hierarchy can be.

2 thoughts on “Merit Scholarships and Training for Hierarchy”

  1. I was offered one of those Chicago Kent Merit Scholarships, but passed on it in favor of a more conventional scholarship at Marquette. Of course the merit scholarship is a bait and switch that unnecessarily adds to the pressure of law school, and not necessarily just the first year. I can imagine that a student with one of these might need to balance job or internship opportunities in the second and third year against the possible cost of losing their scholarship money.

    Is it a bait and switch? Not exactly, or at least no more than law school itself is a bait and switch. If you are smart enough to be offered one of these scholarships, you are, presumably smart enough to find out just how easy or hard it is to maintain a 3.25 GPA. I passed on one of those Chicago Kent scholarships because I figured that if my first year grades were not great, it would be a tough enough blow to bear. It would be even worse if I also had to drop out of law school for financial reasons.

    That being said, 1Ls could be fairly warned how many of these scholarships are awarded for each class. That way they will know exactly how many of their fellow students they are competing against for honors grades and money.

  2. I agree with Martin Tanz that law schools should be required to make full disclosure regarding conditional merit scholarships. However, if there is only a finite amount of financial aid to be awarded to students at a particular law school, I am not sure that it is pernicious to give the money to students who perform well in law school.

    On the other hand, I realize that such a policy will probably benefit students who went to more rigorous academic institutions as undergraduates who typically come from upper middle class or upper class backgrounds. As a result, financial aid money ends up going to those who are probably in the best position to finance their own legal studies.

    Whether it is better for law schools to use financial aid money to encourage excellence in law school or to promote diversity in the legal profession is a difficult question.

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