How Law School Financial Aid Works

Law school tuition can seem outlandishly expensive. It has grown faster than the rate of inflation for decades, part of a distressing trend in higher education that is unlikely to change. However, the “sticker price” of law school can be deceiving.

Applicants commonly receive financial aid in the form of grants and loans, some of the latter with favorable terms or conditions for loan forgiveness. Furthermore, law schools award many applicants merit-based aid ranging from discounted tuition to a full free ride.

Before balking at the cost of law school, potential applicants should consider three sources of financial aid.

Merit-Based Aid for Law School

Law schools have an incentive to use financial aid to entice applicants with highly competitive profiles to accept admission, because the average GPA and LSAT scores of a law school’s entering class are among the factors in law school rankings and reputation. Thus, law schools channel merit aid to applicants whose acceptance would raise the bar for the entering class. In other words, raising your LSAT score may substantially trim your tuition.

[Read: What Law School Applicants Should Know About LSAT/GPA Calculators.]

Notably, merit aid is negotiable. Some schools have a formal process for reconsideration of financial aid while others accept such requests by email. Applicants may even negotiate scholarships after making a deposit on tuition.

The strongest evidence that an applicant can bring to scholarship negotiations is a higher award from a peer law school. If the offer is from a lower-ranked school, it might not be seen as comparable. If it is from a school ranked much higher, admissions officers might not believe a student would seriously consider rejecting it.

Although admissions officers tolerate scholarship negotiations, they tend to dislike it. It reduces the law school admissions process to a game of money and rankings, like negotiations over sports contracts. Thus, requests for reconsideration should be gracious and considerate. Do not try to haggle, and do not “fish” for offers you have no interest in taking.

For best results, provide credible reasons why a higher scholarship would affect your decision. For example, perhaps you feel drawn to the law school’s location but received a higher scholarship offer from a more distant school. Show awareness that you are weighing an offer for a life-changing three years of professional study, not bargaining down the price of a used car.

Need-Based Aid for Law School

Most law schools also offer some form of financial aid based solely on an applicant’s ability to pay for law school — the student’s demonstrated financial need — through a mix of loans and grants. A few schools like Harvard Law School, Stanford Law School and Yale Law School award financial aid only on the basis of demonstrated need.

[Read: Understand the Cost, Payoff of Law School Before Getting a J.D.]

Law schools differ in whether they ask for financial information about an applicant’s parents or family, and in how they weight this factor in calculating final aid. It may depend on the applicant’s age or other contextual information. Interested applicants should ask to discuss the specifics of their situation with a financial aid officer at a given school.

Students who received generous scholarships in college may be disappointed to hear that law schools tend to be stingier with need-based financial aid. Admissions offices argue that law students are older and have easier access to educational loans due to their postgraduate career prospects.

Cynics counter that law schools divert more resources to merit-based aid to boost their rankings, as the percentage of graduates incurring debt for law school and their average law school debt are factors in the U.S. News rankings, for example.

Law school graduates planning to pursue public interest jobs should note that federal and school loan forgiveness programs may reduce their debt burden, regardless of their financial status before law school.

Other Funding Sources for Law School

Law schools may have dedicated funding sources for applicants who meet certain criteria, such as a commitment to public service or a Native American or Indigenous affiliation. In some cases, applicants must apply for such scholarships directly, often with an essay or statement or purpose. In other cases, admissions officers might reach out to relevant applicants individually.

[READ: What Native American and Indigenous Law Applicants Should Know.]

Named scholarships can be sweeping, including benefits like full tuition reimbursement, housing stipends and opportunities for faculty mentorship.

Inevitably, cost is an important factor for many applicants in choosing a law school. The uncertainty of financial aid awards is one more reason why applicants should apply to a wide range of law schools.

More from U.S. News

What Type of Salary You Can Expect With Your Law Degree

How High Is the Typical College GPA Among Accepted Law School Applicants?

How Many Law Schools Should You Apply To?

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