This is yet another example of the invidious effects of the rankings game. Because the entrance qualifications of students make up a significant portion of the USNWR rankings, schools spend a lot of money buying good students (although not as many as they could buy if more students realized it almost always makes far more sense for a student who has the choice to go to the 70th-ranked law school and pay no tuition than to pay $40,000 a year to go to the 25th-ranked school).[A law professor] let me in on the dirty little secret of law school admissions -- those with the very highest LSAT scores and who are very likely to do well academically get the fattest scholarships. The books are balanced on the backs of those with lower LSAT scores and who are likely not to do as well. I remember it seeming kind of astounding to an outsider that this was how the system worked, but it's absolutely true. in my application process, I was able to get insane scholarship offers from schools where my LSAT number was at the 75th percentile or above. Where I was at the median or below, I was paying full boat.
Ultimately, I had to pick between a highly ranked top 20 school and [the school I chose]. It was a tough call -- some innate voice and lots of misguided friends told me to go with USNWR rankings. [The professor] told me to take [the lower ranked school's] money and never look back. I did the latter and don't regret it for a minute for my personal reasons. I did very well academically (summa cum laude), was EIC of the law review, etc. I was able to obtain a great job at a terrific law firm that will pay me very well. Because of the scholarship, I have little debt.
BUT there is a certain amount of moral outrage I feel about the system. I have many, many friends at [the school I chose] who did not do as well, who never had a scholarship, and who have six-figure debt with zero job prospects. They essentially "paid" for my legal education and the whole enterprise makes me feel uneasy. Probably in the same way that you feel uneasy about being a professor.
As my correspondent notes, in effect this system guarantees that the vast majority of students who are going to get less of a return on their investment in law school anyway, because they won't finish near the top of their classes, are subsidizing the small number of students who have a far better shot at securing decent jobs. At my school students pay a mean tuition of 80% of full price -- but the median student pays 100%. A handful of students with excellent entrance numbers get full rides, as do a few minority students, in order to keep up our "diversity" numbers. Almost everyone else pays the MSRP, or something very close to it. Almost no need-based scholarship money is available.
All these factors conspire to produce an extremely strong class bias in law school admissions. Since people from upper class backgrounds (including minority students from such backgrounds) are more likely to have the strongest admissions numbers, because of all the advantages that are part of having such a background, the people who end up getting scholarship money are often the people who need it least, both in terms of being able to attend law school at all, and in terms of making law school pay off in the long run. And the most unjust feature of this system is that the students who can least afford to pay the currently absurdly inflated price of attending law school are actually subsidizing the students who can afford it most.
Conservatives like to complain, with some justification, that law school faculties are dominated by political liberals. But it's remarkable how little effect the supposedly liberal political commitments of law school faculty members have on basic issues of economic and social justice such as this one.
Update: From Comments
The Tier 2 school from which I just graduated played an interesting (and perhaps unethical?) variation on the scholarship theme. The school proudly offers a merit scholarship to all incoming students who have a certain LSAT/GPA combo. This scholarship renews for the 2L and 3L years provided the student maintains a certain GPA (namely, a 3.33), with this information receiving far less prominence. So far, nothing is out of the ordinary.I had noticed a number of claims on the scam blogs that some law schools engage in the practice of "stacking" 1L sections in this way. I must admit that when I first encountered them these claims struck me as highly implausible and even a bit paranoid. I mean surely no law school administration would engage in behavior that was both so grossly unethical and so easily discoverable in a civil action, right?
However, a large majority of the merit scholarship recipients were placed together in my 1L section (this school operates three 1L sections). This particular practice was discussed by several of our professors, and it seemed plausible at the time based on conversations among us classmates. From talking among ourselves at the beginning of our 2L year, it seemed that my particular 1L section suffered the most scholarship losses. This, of course, would be the purpose of bunching scholarship winners together in one 1L section. With exceptionally fierce competition and many more recipients than the grade curve can handle, the school would be able to revoke many scholarships over that first summer.
Allow me a few more pieces of information about the school to help understand this claim. First of all, a B+ at my school was only a 3.25, even though the scholarship maintenance GPA was a 3.33. Second, after the 1L year, there are no more assigned classes and the sections dissolve. After the last two homogenized years in the school any idiosyncratic 1L grade curves should be highly diluted, if not wiped away completely. However, my 1L section accounted for several more than half of the Summa and Magna cum Laude honors (top 1% and 5%) as well as very nearly half of the elections to the Order of the Coif. Having run the numbers (being done with the bar exam betrays how much spare time I have), my section is more than three standard deviations away from an expected normal distribution of graduation honors. This empirical evidence therefore supports the theory that a large majority of merit scholarship recipients were grouped into my section. (In addition, my section's GPA cutoff for Law Review at the end of 1L was significantly higher than the other sections', selection being done by section to account for each section's grading idiosyncrasies).
So, not only did my school not really explain the possibility and probability of merit scholarships' disappearing, but it appears to have actively engaged in practices designed to invalidate as many as possible after the first year. That's really special.
I guess we're going to find out.