Which law school give away the most money?

Law schools across the country are digging into their pocket books, providing students with much-needed scholarships. Find out who’s dishing out the cash and how they are able to do it    

by Karen Dybis

Erika Tyler is like a lot of law students. She has piles of debt from her undergraduate degree at Boston College, and she dreams of working in the rewarding but financially challenging area of public interest law.

So choosing a law school — and figuring out how to pay for it — was one of Tyler’s major concerns. Complicating matters was her desire to be close to her two younger brothers in light of her mother’s death a few years ago.

Then she received her acceptance letter to Quinnipiac College, which offered her a full-tuition scholarship. The Connecticut native jumped at the opportunity.

“My scholarship has taken away some of the financial stress that graduate school can bring,” said Tyler, who hopes to pursue a career in homeless advocacy.

“I would have had to work at least part time or maybe gone to school only part time and work full time, which I did not want to do,” Tyler said. “My scholarship from QU has made going to law school feasible.”

For law-school applicants, grants and scholarships are one way to avoid or reduce the amount of back-breaking debt they will have upon graduation. The majority of law schools offer some kind of financial awards, mostly based on a student’s academic achievements like a high undergrad grade point average or LSAT score.

How does your school fair among the others?

To that end, The National Jurist took a close look at which of the nation’s American Bar Association-approved law schools give away the most money to incoming students. The result is a list that identifies the Top 50 law schools in terms of grants and scholarships compared to tuition.

Who dishes out the most money?

The National Jurist created the list using data from the 2008 edition of the Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools. (The information comes from the ABA’s 2007 annual questionnaire, which is completed in the fall of that year.)

The top five law schools in terms of grants and scholarships per tuition are: Thomas M. Cooley Law School, University of Toledo, Liberty University, Northern Kentucky University and the University of LaVerne. (See accompanying chart on the previous page for the remaining schools and their ranking).

For example, Liberty University has a median grant award of $22,000 and an annual tuition of about $24,000. Dean Mathew D. Staver said the law school has increased its scholarship funding from $876,400 for the Class of 2007 to more than $1.18 million for the Class of 2010. He said scholarship funds are increasing due in part to the law school’s
overall growth.

For Thomas Cooley, it’s all about students demonstrating academic achievement.

“Cooley believes that students that have demonstrated academic achievement deserve to be recognized, and we award very generous scholarships from 25 percent to 100 percent of tuition,” said Don LeDuc, Cooley president. “This past year, 55 percent of students received scholarship awards for their
impressive credentials.”

While no one would advocate selecting a law school solely based on financial considerations, it certainly is a pressing issue considering the rising levels of debt the average law student faces. It also can affect what career path a student follows and what job they ultimately accept after law school, especially considering the pay scale in some areas like public service.

Liberty Thomas McAteer, a second-year student at Brooklyn Law School, said she has seen many friends who wanted public-service jobs take positions at large law firms — all in an effort to pay off their student loans.

Brooklyn law originally offered McAteer a $25,000- a-year scholarship. She hesitated, mostly because her mother had lost her job and the costs became unreasonable. Then Brooklyn upped the ante to a full ride, and McAteer jumped.

“Not having to deal with debt is incredibly freeing,” McAteer said. “Now I am increasingly exploring the possibility of applying for a position as an assistant district attorney when I graduate. I also am considering public interest law.”

Caroline Payseur, a second-year law student at Wake Forest, considered three law schools: her alma mater UNC-Chapel Hill and William and Mary as well as Wake Forest. She received a full-tuition scholarship from the private university’s law school aimed at residents of North Carolina.

“The scholarship money completely changed my priorities in deciding where to go to law school. I had originally planned to go to a public university for financial reasons,” Payseur said. “The scholarship opportunity opened more doors for me.”

Avoiding the “golden handcuffs” of debt was a huge boon for Stephen Foland, a second-year student at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor. Foland received a full scholarship to attend the relatively new law school.

“My undergraduate grades and LSAT scores were high enough to earn admission to a lot of schools, but getting into law school and paying for it are two different matters,” Foland said.

“I had planned on attending graduate school from the day I finished college,” Foland said. “If it were not for my scholarship I would still be working to save enough money to pay for it, and I would not be enrolling in law school until I was 32 or 33. So in addition to the $100,000, my scholarship saved me four or five years of work.”

Ave Maria has made “a concerted effort” to help incoming students with generous scholarship awards since its first entering class in 2000, said Charles W. Roboski, an associate dean in the office of admissions and external affairs.

“Through the generosity of supporters, including Ave Maria Foundation, we have been in the fortunate position of providing generous awards to between 50 and 65 percent of the typical entering class,” Roboski said.

Both incoming and current students are eligible for scholarships, which range from $10,000 to full tuition, Roboski said. Most full-tuition scholarships go to new students who show academic potential, and a few are awarded to students who performed extremely well in their first year at Ave Maria.

How they do it

Surveys show the average debt of the graduating Class of 2006 from the Top 14 law schools is just under $100,000. Debt among students in schools ranked in the top four tiers as determined by U.S. News & World Report comes in around $75,000 across the board.

Wake Forest University School of Law provides grants and scholarships anywhere from $5,000 to full tuition to about 40 percent of its entering class, said Melanie Nutt, director of admissions and financial aid. She said much of the funding for Wake Forest’s financial aid comes from alumni and through the law school’s budget.

Nutt said there is good reason why some students receive scholarships and others do not. Today’s law schools are slaves to magazines like U.S. News. So if they want to boost their ranking, they need to find the best students they possibly can. That often means giving full rides to those with high GPAs or LSAT scores, Nutt said. Larger, more prestigious law schools may not need to offer as much money to students.

“Scholarships are very much like athletic grants or major league signing bonuses,” Nutt said. “You might get a signing bonus with the Winston Salem Warthogs, but you’re not going to with the Chicago White Sox.”

Gonzaga University School of Law funds its scholarships through private donations, alumni support and monies from its 501©3 foundation, said Dean Earl Martin.

Gonzaga also has additional dollars for students in their second and third years of law school, including those that serve as law-review editors.

Third-year law student Monica Julian said she is forever indebted to Wake Forest for its full-tuition scholarship and the incentive it gives her to work even harder.

“I knew I couldn’t afford [law school] and could not handle incurring that much debt,” Julian said. “When I found out about the scholarship, I was ecstatic. I left my full-time job, sold almost everything I owned and moved across the country to start my dream career.”  n

Karen Dybis is a freelance writer based in Detroit, Mich.