Friday, May 12, 2006

A Fairness Issue in How Law Schools Award Merit Aid

Brian Tamanaha (St. John's) raises an interesting and very real issue:

The economic value of a law degree for graduates from elite law schools, and for top students from non-elite law schools, would seem to handily justify the [tuition] price. A law degree for these favored individuals is a ticket to $130,000+ starting salaries in corporate law firms, with the prospect of much more down the line.

But what about the overwhelming majority of law graduates (all those not in the favored categories above) for whom a law degree offers a far lower earning potential? There is a large separation in the practicing bar, superbly documented in Heinz, et. al., Urban Lawyers (Chicago 2005). Corporate lawyers are doing well, but, while tuition keeps going up, salaries for the rest of the lawyers out there have decreased in real terms.

This brings me to the fairness issue. A peculiar system has developed in many non-elite institutions, in which the students most likely to make the least money end up subsidizing the legal education of the students most likely to make the most money.

The way "merit" scholarships work, students with high LSAT scores--which law schools covet in the effort to shape their profile for the purposes of U.S. News rankings--get large discounts (with some paying no tuition at all). It is not the case, of course, that high LSAT students always rank at the top of the first year class, or that the lower LSAT students end up at the bottom half of the class. But when it does happen (often enough), the result is that the lowest ranked students pay full price, while the highest ranked students pay much less. And the lowest ranked students get the worst paying jobs (and sometimes no job), while the highest ranked students get the best paying jobs....

Elite schools are off the hook on this, because they don't have the same dynamic, but any law school outside the top twenty will have some version of it.

Is this fair?  Comments are open at Tamanaha's original post.

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