Mar 1, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Merit scholarships for law school students are on the rise, but the results of 2016’s Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) reveal that this funding source may be benefiting one particular group of students: privileged offspring of college-educated parents. Here’s a closer look at the data, along with why many law school leaders are calling for change.

Defining “Merit”

Currently, LSAT results are a significant determinant in the awarding of merit scholarships, according to the LSSSE report. In fact, a full 90 percent of funding recipients scored above 165 on their LSATs 

However, the validity of this approach is in question. In the study forward, University of California Hasting College of the Law Distinguished Professor of Law Frank H. Wu writes, “Everyone is on the side of merit. There are no advocates for mediocrity. But so-called merit scholarships are less about students’ merit than they are about our own sense of elitism. The formulas for allocating the scholarships usually blend LSAT and UGPA. Responsible decision-makers, including those who design standardized tests, warn that these instruments are merely predictors of performance. They should not be confused with merit itself.”

A Call to Do Better

With 79 percent of law school scholarships now based on merit and 65 percent of recipients of these scholarships sharing one notable thing in common -- at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree or higher -- the implication is clear: The students hurt by the trend are the ones already lacking in resources and therefore most in need of financial aid.

Contends Wu, “The result has been a ‘reverse Robin Hood’ revenue model in which the poorest students are being forced to subsidize their wealthier peers. Real scholarships are funded by donors, endowments, and sources other than the student seated next to the recipient.”

So how should merit be determined?  For starters, Wu suggests awarding scholarships support to high-performing continuing students based on their actual law school records. Additionally, reducing the price of tuition for all student would further mitigate Wu’s concern that current merit scholarship policies are merely “sales gimmicks in the form of tuition discounts.”

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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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