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. TheGolden 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.
On the Golden Gate campus recently, a group of first-year students at risk of losing their scholarships were trying to make sense of the system. Most declined to be identified for this article because criticizing the school seemed, at minimum, undiplomatic. But the phrase “bait and switch” came up a lot. Several assumed that they were given what is essentially a discount to get them in the door.
“I had a friend once who told me that hunting is a sport,” said one Golden Gate merit grant winner who anticipated coming up shy of a 3.0 average. “I said, ‘Hunting is not a sport.’ He said: ‘Sure it’s a sport. It’s just that the animals don’t know they’re in a game.’ That’s what it feels like to be a law student these days. You have no idea you’re in a game.”
The school’s dean, Drucilla Stender Ramey, declined to say exactly how many students would lose their scholarships this year, suggesting that doing so would violate the privacy rights of the students. She acknowledged, though, that lost merit scholarships have been the source of much campus misery.
“Of course some students are disappointed,” she said. “I thought I’d be 5-foot-10, and I’m 4-11. But if you gave students sodium pentothal,” also known as the truth serum, “they’d say, ‘This is a new and very difficult undertaking, the school will support me as best they can and, hopefully, with hard work and good luck, I’ll be able to retain my scholarship.’”
Nobody knows exactly how many law school students nationwide lose scholarships each year — no oversight body tallies that figure — but what’s clear is that American law schools have quietly gone on a giveaway binge in the last decade. In 2009, the most recent year for which the American Bar Association has data, 38,000 of 145,000 law school students — more than one in four — were on merit scholarships. The total tab for all schools in all three years: more than $500 million.
It’s a huge sum, particularly when you realize that merit scholarships were exceptionally rare at law schools a mere generation ago. But given that many students lose their grants after the first year, the question is this: What exactly are law schools buying with all of that money?
JERRY ORGAN, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, has been one of the few academics to study law school merit scholarships. Six years ago, after a conversation with the school’s director of admissions, Professor Organ learned that the number of applicants weighing merit scholarship offers had soared since his days as an applicant in the early 1980s.