Conditional Scholarships for Law School: What to Know

Welcome to the latest installment of Law Admissions Q&A, a feature that provides law school admissions advice to readers who send in inquiries. If you have a question about law school admissions, email us for a chance to be featured in a future post.

Q: How do you feel about conditional scholarships? Do you think they are predatory and misleading? – SA

While conditional scholarships are not predatory in themselves, they are often abused by predatory programs. Applicants offered a conditional scholarship at a law school of their choice should review the terms carefully, ask questions and negotiate as necessary.

Before diving into how to react to a conditional scholarship offer, let’s define the term.

The Basics of Conditional Scholarships

Over the last two decades, financial assistance for law school has moved toward merit-based grants awarded to applicants with high grade point averages, LSAT scores or other factors that may bolster a school’s reputation or ranking.

[Read: How Law School Financial Aid Works]

Most applicants receive some form of merit-based award, effectively discounting the price they pay for law school. Merit-based awards are offered without regard to an applicant’s financial position, unlike need-based assistance.

Conditional scholarships are merit-based assistance dependent upon maintaining a minimum grade point average or class standing, beyond the academic requirements that apply to all students.

If you accept a conditional scholarship that requires you to perform in the top half of your class and you fall below that mark, then the school may cut or revoke your scholarship. You won’t be expelled as long as you remain in good academic standing, but you may face a steep jump in tuition.

The Prevalence of Conditional Scholarships

Many law schools offer conditional scholarships, as shown by the required 509 disclosures available on the American Bar Association website.

Readers may find the report on conditional scholarships by the legal education watchdog Law School Transparency clearer to interpret. That report shows that the percentage of law schools offering conditional scholarships has declined over the last several years from about 61% in 2011-2012 to about 43% in the 2019-2020 academic year, likely due to rising concerns about conditional scholarships.

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

The percentage of law students with conditional scholarships who had those scholarships revoked declined more rapidly, from about 36% percent to about 10% in the same time span.

How to Evaluate and Respond to a Conditional Scholarship Offer

A conditional scholarship offer should not be dismissed out of hand, but it does present more risk than other forms of financial assistance. Thus, it requires more legwork.

First, review a conditional scholarship offer carefully to ensure you understand its terms and the consequences of noncompliance. Don’t be afraid to email follow-up questions or schedule a call with the office of admissions or financial aid to walk through the offer’s implications.

Second, consider the school making the offer. Conditional scholarships are most worrisome at unranked or low-ranked law schools with high dropout rates. Some of those law schools may profit from pressuring law students who fail to meet the terms of conditional scholarships to either drop out or take on additional debt.

[Read: Common Reasons Students Leave Law School]

Try to learn more about how difficult it will be to maintain the grades or class rank required to keep the scholarship. Do online research and try to speak to current students or recent alumni.

Don’t assume you can get the same grades in law school that you did in college. Law schools vary in their grading curves, and it can be hard to guarantee high performance. Since many classes are graded blindly based solely on final exams, it can be difficult to achieve high grades every term.

Third, don’t be afraid to negotiate. If the terms seem riskier than you feel comfortable with, ask for adjustments. Be polite, firm and specific.

A great source of leverage would be a more generous scholarship from a peer law school, especially a nearby school with a roughly comparable reputation. Higher LSAT scores and other indicators of academic potential can help your case , as well.

Conditional scholarships may be a red flag in some cases, but they should be weighed against alternatives. Students who can avoid the trap of unreasonable terms may justifiably prefer conditional scholarships to paying full tuition.

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