February 24, 2022
Are you reviewing financial aid offers? In this webinar, aimed at individuals planning to start law school by August 2022, we heard from financial aid experts to better understand the ins and outs of law school scholarships, scholarship offers, and the loan options available to help pay for your legal education.
VOICEOVER: LSAC LawHub. Explore. Prepare. Succeed. LawHub® Webinar Series: Scholarship Appeals and Student Loans. Recorded February 24, 2022.
GISELE JOACHIM: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this LawHub® Webinar Series. My name is Gisele Joachim, and I am the executive director of education and ambassadors here at LSAC. I’m thrilled to be with you today to lead a discussion that I know is important to all aspiring law students. Today, we are going to dig into financial aid, scholarships, and navigating the various policies and processes that you will find at individual law schools in this regard.
Joining me today, is my wonderful colleague Michelle Heck . Dean Heck is the associate dean of admissions at the University of Richmond School of Law in Richmond, Virginia. Dean Heck, thank you so much for joining me in today’s conversation.
MICHELLE HECK: Thank you so much for having me, and I’m so excited to see all of the students joining, because I know this is a topic a lot of people don’t always want to talk about, but I think it’s one of the most important things to talk about.
GISELE: Agreed. So, I’m going to begin with a quick outline of some basic financial aid premises and terms, because I think that that will help sort of direct the rest of the conversation. So, first of all, some basic definitions. Let’s start out with: What do we mean by “financial aid"? So, by financial aid, what we mean is money, and we’re going to talk about the different sources of money, but money that is used and expected to be used to pay for higher education and costs that are associated with higher education. So, we’ll come back to that in a minute. Scholarships: Scholarships is what everybody wants, right? The free money. The money that you don’t have to return, the money that is generally thought of as gift money, money with no return policy, anything like that. But let me talk about something, a sort of finer definition as between scholarships and grants.
Typically, when people speak about scholarships, they’re talking about that free money that is awarded based on something meritorious. And by meritorious at the undergraduate level, that might be an athlete, for example, it’s their athletic merit that gets them a scholarship. Typically in the law school setting - which is what we’re going to be talking about today, obviously - merit has to do with grades, scores, and other attributes merit has to do with grades, scores, and other attributes that applicants are bringing to the admissions process. But, again, it’s going to be based upon sort of attributes of the applicant.
Grants, on the other hand, are typically awarded based on perceived financial need. OK? So, also the free money, the money that you won’t have to repay, like scholarships, but it’s a finer point as between scholarships and grants. One being based on need, one being based on merit, and Dean Heck and I are going to get in a conversation about, at the law school level, sometimes it’s both things that are coming into play, but we’ll come back to that. Then, the financial aid, I think that folks are familiar with loans, of course, student loans, which we’ll spend a few minutes on giving you the particulars about student loans that are available for law school students. That’s the money that you’re going to have to repay, but with federal loans, you will see that there are particular unique repayment arrangements and other things that make them special, different than, for example, just getting a car loan, which goes into repayment immediately. We’ll spend a few minutes on that. And then, finally, in some cases, work can be considered financial aid. And examples of that are work-study, which includes working on a campus, whether it’s the law school campus or maybe the university campus, but also other work arrangements, like teaching assistants or other kinds of assistants on the academic side of things. So, those can all be forms of financial aid that are awarded to a student when they’re applying to law school. And we’ll talk again more particularly how that works.
The other thing that I want to say at the outset is for those of you who have joined us today who have some familiarity with financial aid from your own undergraduate education, things are really different in the law school world. And the big difference is that for undergraduate education, there are many different sources that are contributing to possible sources of financial aid. So for example, the federal government takes a real interest in having an educated society, at least to the undergraduate level, right? So there are federal grant programs like Pell Grants, which some folks will be familiar with, and other programs that are available at the undergraduate level that simply don’t exist at the law school and graduate level. Similarly, some of you may be familiar with state grants that are available depending on where you live. Again, states take interest in having an educated society, and so they set up financial aid programs that support that effort. Again, sort of less interest in doing that for law school attendance at the federal and state level, so you won’t really find very much, if any, grant money from federal or state resources for law school. But on the institutional side, you will see that there is often quite a bit of resources that the institutions themselves, the law schools themselves, are making available to students to enroll the student body that they’re trying to enroll. And that’s what scholarships and grants come from. Oftentimes, grant money, that is, money that might be based on financial need, is coming out of endowed and other sources, that is, people who are gifting the school’s money and saying that they want those funds awarded in particular ways, but all of that is going to run through either the admissions office and/or the financial aid office at the different law schools you’re applying to. Finally, the other thing that I want you to think about as we get through the rest of this is sort of the total cost of a law school education. I know that it can feel daunting, can be $150,000 over the three years if you’re a full-time student. And so that is really something to think about, and again, to be thinking about it more than just the tuition cost, but the all-in cost, which oftentimes usually is referred to as the cost of attendance. That’s another important term for you to understand.
The cost of attendance is not just about tuition, it’s not just the amount that you’re going to pay to an individual law school. Cost of attendance is meant to encompass all of the costs that it is to be a student at a particular law school. So that will include tuition, it also will include room and board, it’ll include some level of living expenses, and the cost of attendance can vary, obviously by the amount of tuition, but also on the law school that you choose. If it’s in a more expensive area, then obviously, the living costs are going to be higher and push that total cost of attendance higher. If it’s in a less expensive area, the opposite. Cost of attendance is an important term, because that is the total amount, in any given year, that a law school, or any school, is permitted to award you. So all of the money together, whether you get, let’s say it’s a combination of scholarship and loan funds, together, those, those awards would not ever exceed your cost of attendance. So you you’re going to try to live within those means. And the truth is, what I think any admissions professional would tell you, anybody who’s been through law school, as you begin this journey, we want you to borrow as little as you can, right? We want you to, the saying goes, “to live like a student when you are a student, so you can live like a lawyer when you’re a lawyer.” Try to keep your debt down. With that, I’m going to pass it off to Dean Heck, and I’d like you to dig a bit more into law school financial aid specifically.
MICHELLE: Sure, and so one of the things that I am going to encourage everyone on this call today, if you have not done already, is to start an Excel spreadsheet. There’s going to be a lot of information that varies from school to school, so some of the things we’re going to talk about today are going to cover those things that you need to ask specific schools. And the best way to do it is to keep it all in one place, so you can keep track of that. And one of those things, as Gisele mentioned, is going to be the institutional grants and scholarships. We’re, again, going to talk about this a little bit more through the process, but you’re going to find that some schools have very specific dates that you need to apply by, or different priority deadlines. So it’s not just a matter sometimes of being eligible, but you want to make sure you follow all of the regulations along the way so that you can make the best possible outcome for what those grants and scholarships are going to be. Other things to keep in mind: When you fill out your application, some schools are going to ask you flat-out if you want to be eligible for scholarships. Others are just going to go ahead and say everyone that applies is eligible, while some may go ahead and ask that question. Do yourself a favor and say yes, you do want to be eligible for scholarships, but you want to make sure you read thoroughly through that.
So we’ll get into scholarships a little bit more later, but let’s talk about loans a little bit. The very first place to start when it comes to looking at loans for law school is going to be through the FAFSA . The FAFSA is actually the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. I know there’re some links in the chat about that. For those of you that have borrowed in undergrad, it’s going to be the same link that you went to at that point; for those of you who have never borrowed, you’re going to be starting your FAFSA account for the very first time. Now, this can be a little daunting and many times I’ll have students ask the question, “What if I don’t know where I want to go to school yet?” One of the things with the FAFSA, you can actually select, I believe these days it’s up to 10 schools of interest. You can always go in and change it, but it’s much more important to go ahead and get that FAFSA done, so that way it is on file as you go through this process.
Each year, October 1 is the magic date that you can start that FAFSA. So if you haven’t done it yet and you’re thinking about starting law school this next year, you definitely want to make sure that you do that. The FAFSA can also come into play when it comes into grants, which we’ll talk about a little bit later. Now, with the FAFSA, that is what the government is going to use to determine how much federal loans you are actually able to borrow. The first set of loans that comes into play is the unsubsidized Stafford loans . Now, it’s called unsubsidized because interest starts accruing from the day that you take it. And the interest is going to compound on each year on stuff that you borrow. So we could talk all day about that, we won’t get into the details, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind, when we encourage you to make sure you budget, to take the least amount as possible. Now, as we talked about cost of attendance, that $20,500 may not nearly cover the amount of money that you still need to live. That’s when the next big loan comes into place, which is the Graduate PLUS loan . Now, the difference in the Graduate PLUS loan, if some of you borrowed in undergrad, it’s very similar to the Parent PLUS Loan, but for the Graduate PLUS loan, it’s just you. So that requires a credit check. Now, no credit is good credit, bad credit is bad credit, and so it’s something that if you are even remotely concerned about your credit, reach out to someone.
As you’re applying to law school, don’t be bashful about talking to the admissions offices, or the financial aid officers they give to you to talk to, to ask some of these in depth questions. Now, unfortunately, Grad PLUS doesn’t tell us what is actually bad credit, but I always encourage students at any point, pull a credit report for yourself, start looking to see if there’s anything on it that you can start cleaning up now. Now, the Graduate PLUS loan is what typically will take students to the rest of the amount needed to cover that cost of attendance. One thing to keep in mind, though, is the interest rates to pay back these loans are a little bit different for both. Now, if you borrowed in undergrad, you may know what your interest rate is, which is much closer to about a 3.73% to return. As we talked about, there’s not as many options for the graduate and professional students. The unsubsidized loan interest rate these days is actually about 5.28%, and the Direct PLUS loan is about 6.28%. Now, that does change from year to year, so that’s not something that’s going to be locked in for the life of your time while you’re taking out those loans.
Now, during COVID, we could also spend a whole lot of time talking about it, because the government has actually suspended some of those interest rates. They’ve extended that a few times, and right now it’s until May 1 before the interest rate starts accruing again. So we could talk about that all day, but I know we have much, many more things to discuss, but just start with the FASFA, great place to start to kind of go through that. One other comment I will mention about that, that we’ll get into a little bit later, is when you mark “a professional student” on that FAFSA, you are not required to put your parents’ income on there. However, as we will talk about when we get into grants, there are many schools that will want you to go ahead and put that information on. So outside of that, we will get into the private and institutional loans. This is going to be very specific from school to school. There are a few students out there that will borrow the private loans from a bank. It is, again, something very individually specific to talk to someone specifically at the admissions office or financial aid office, so they can guide you through that process.
We find most of our students are going to do much better through the unsubsidized federal loan, as well as the Graduate PLUS loan. And then, lastly, another great thing for your Excel spreadsheet is to keep track of, as we mentioned, research assistantships, graduate assistantships, and federal work-study. There are many law schools around the country that may have federal work-study or may even just have work positions in the law school that they can hire you for. We get the question all the time of students coming that have either been working full time, or they’ve never not worked while they were in school. And this is a situation to really consider. Many, many students will not work during their first year or have a lighter load, but for those that do need to work sometimes a work-study position that you’re in the building, or even a work position where you maybe are manning the circulation desk at the library, so you have a little time to study, could be much more helpful while still getting you some money to be able to pay on some of your expenses of law school.
Now, there are many other things to ask of this school. You know, there may be other funding opportunities, whether they have research assistantships, something great that may be able to share more information in an area of law of interest while earning a little bit of money in the meantime, and adding some more stuff to your resume. So something very great to ask. They may have graduate assistantships. They may have a few different assistantships, as far as, you’re interested in government, not-for-profit, or public interest. They may have some stipend programs, if there’s a specific job that you decide to take. So all really good questions that you’re going to want to ask the school specifically to make sure that you don’t miss out on any of those things, but also to make sure you have all of your options covered.
GISELE: That’s great, so helpful, Michelle, I just wanted to jump in a little bit on the student loan issue and highlight something you said a little bit, but really highlight it for the participants. And that is, the federal loans that are set out for higher education here, Stafford loan, Unsub, and Grad PLUS, they really present the best opportunity for borrowing. You may actually be able to find private loans or alternative loans that might have a lower sort of come-on interest rate. But recent history really tells us the importance of these loans. And that is that they’re really a safety net, that is to say, since the government really controls them, there’s a safety net when things get out of whack. So, for example, with COVID, not only did they sort of suspend the interest from accruing, but they suspended the need to make payments for a period of time. So that was huge. That is something that you would never find in the private loan market. If you think about a car loan or anything else you’ve borrowed for credit cards, like loans, right? You just have to keep paying. So you will want to exhaust your federal eligibility before going elsewhere.
The only sort of caveat I’d give to that is there are a small number of law schools that have their own institutional loan programs. And those are usually very good, and by very good, I mean that the interest, that the repayment terms are very good, right? That the interest rates would be low, that there would be flexibility in making your payments, and that the institution would want to work with you in making those repayments. You would be an alum of the institution, and so they’re interested in seeing it work out well for everybody, if you will. So on to the next; I’d like us to move on to a more detailed discussion of institutional scholarships and grants. So as we’ve said, Dean Heck is here from Richmond Law, but we are going to speak very generally about law schools, because the way that institutional scholarships are awarded can be very different from school to school. So we are, between the two of us, going to try to touch on all of those variations and maybe pick up things that, where one of us leaves off, the other one will pick up so that we’re sure to cover everything. But let’s begin sort of with an overview, if you would, Dean Heck, about how might scholarships initially be awarded to students?
MICHELLE: Sure, a great question. And this is one kind of back to that Excel sheet. It depends; you’re going to hear that answer a lot when you go to law school. But one of the things that is traditional for many law schools around the country is going to be based on that first application to law school. Many of the scholarships are merit-based, which we’ll get into in a little bit, but many times that first scholarship award is going to tell you whether you will receive that same award your second and third year. It’s a great question to ask whether there are more scholarships in your second and third year, but you will find that there are a lot of law schools that that first scholarship you get may be the only scholarship to have all three years. Now, different schools kind of award at different times. Most schools will have some sort of deposit deadline in April-ish, but that means that they will give you the scholarship and loan information before you get to that point. Some schools, it will be at the point of admissions, while other schools may have a very certain date that they’re going to release these different scholarship offers, but you should have had plenty of time to kind of make a decision. Now, with this scholarship may also come the grants that we’ve talked about a little bit; there are specific grants that each school awards. This is also why it’s important to make sure that FAFSA is on file, so if they do have need-based scholarships or there’s grants, that they have all of the information they need from the onset so they can award that information properly.
GISELE: So when you say that awards will be based upon the application, specifically, what do you mean when you say that?
MICHELLE: Sure, so we talk a lot about the difference in merit- and need-based. I’m going to start with merit because I think in the law school world, that’s probably where a larger bulk of the scholarships come from. Now, merit can mean several different things, but typically, in a lot of places, that’s going to mean your LSAT score and your undergraduate GPA. Part of the reason it’s your undergraduate GPA is because that’s going to be the GPA on record when LSAC processes your transcript. And every incoming student is going to have a GPA. So it’s kind of standard. Now, many of you will have master’s work or other work that may be considered in that scholarship process. But traditionally, LSAT and GPA is going to be a big factor. But that is one of the things to kind of keep in mind as you’re asking schools. There are some schools, when you apply, whatever that LSAT and that GPA is, when they give that scholarship, they’re never going to look again. There are other schools that if you apply early enough in the cycle, and let’s say that you retake the LSAT and maybe your score goes up, or you’re still in school and your GPA increases, they may actually go back and award more scholarship funds. So that’s a great question to ask, so that way it kind of gives you a timeline.
Even now, if you’re thinking law school in the next couple years, you can kind of start planning out your timeline: When do you want to have your best LSAT score by so that you can make sure not only that you are hitting application deadlines, but you are getting in the middle of the scholarships? Another point I want to point out, though, along those lines with scholarships, many law schools will issue scholarships on a rolling basis, meaning the first batch of the students they admit, they will grant scholarships to, the next batch of students admitted, they will grant more scholarships. Eventually, that pot of money starts to run out. So it’s something you definitely want to kind of watch that timeline and ask of the schools to make sure that you are doing that. Now, maybe jumping ahead just a little bit, Gisele, but when we talk about those merit scholarships, one of the things to keep in mind is some of them will have restrictions. So that’s something that you want to look at when you’re getting those scholarships offers, especially if they are merit-based scholarships; they may also have a merit-based restriction on your performance in your second and third year. So you want to make sure you’re keeping track of all of that and looking at that information so that you have it.
GISELE: Definitely jumping ahead, but we’re going to come back to that in a minute. I want to go back to sort of the beginning of the process. One of the things that I’ve seen is that it may require a separate application, it may come in the initial admission letter, or it may come follow-up. Is that your experience also?
MICHELLE: Absolutely, and sometimes you’re going to get asked some, what you think may be very odd questions. As we talked about endowed scholarships earlier, that many schools have scholarships that were left by donors, there may be certain requirements they’re trying to fill. Like, they may be looking for the 8-foot-tall person that did underwater basket weaving as a major in undergrad. And so they might have received part of that information on your application, but there may be other information they’re trying to gather from you, so they can see which scholarships you fit. So it’s very important to read the instructions, look and see how the school awards scholarships so that you can keep track, but then also keeping an eye on your email, because if there’s a follow-up form that they’re asking for, or their instructions say, you know, check your status tracker or something, you don’t want to miss something in the process, to make sure that you have filled out all of the necessary paperwork.
GISELE: Great, and that’s a perfect segue. Let’s talk a little bit about program-specific scholarships. So for example, would be a public interest scholarship.
MICHELLE: So, there’s going to be certain scholarships out there that a lot times are school-based, based on a specific area. And again, sometimes it may be that a certain donor left certain funds for that. I think probably the most common one we see are public-interest scholarships. And this is because a lot of students that choose to go into public interest, the salaries they may have after they finish law school are not going to be the salaries if, say, you were working for a big corporate firm or something along those lines. So there may be very specific questions on the application about your area of interest. There may be some applications that require you to write a statement about that. You know, what this school is trying to glean from you is true interest in some of these different areas. There may be other forms along the admissions process. There may actually be public interest scholarships after you start law school. So that is a question to ask. Some schools have some summer programs, so if you’re doing a non-for-profit or public interest, there may be additional funding. There may be additional funding when you are about to graduate in some of these different areas. So you really just want to ask, especially if you have a specific area of interest, are there any scholarships along these lines? Is there anything else I need to do to make sure that I qualify for these?
GISELE: Great. So there’s a specific question that’s been coming up in the Q&A, so I think this is a good place to deal with it, because we’re talking about very specific scholarships. So I know you can only answer absolutely for Richmond, but we’ll talk about sort of what the experience is at others. Are your scholarships at Richmond available to international students?
MICHELLE: So we are, and that is a great question to ask. Our scholarships are eligible for international students. The one big thing, unfortunately for all law schools, international students are not eligible for federal loans. And so that is one of the questions you want to make sure that you ask during this process, because we know that federal loan money is not coming. And so there is a scholarship program for us, and I know many of our colleagues have that as well.
GISELE: Perfect, that’s my experience as well. OK, let’s circle back to those renewal or maintenance requirements you started to mention before, Dean Heck. We talked about that there might be, read the fine print, there could be requirements. What does that look like? Generally speaking.
MICHELLE: Sure, and so there’s going to be different requirements for different schools. Many schools have no requirements. And so sometimes it may be like if, we talked about public interest scholarship, and then you choose not to do public interest, there may be a requirement, you know, that you have to pay back some of that stuff. But the more typical type of restrictions that we see are going to be GPA-specific on how you perform during law school. And so some schools will have maybe, say, stay in the top 10% or the top 50%, where some schools may say, academic good standing. These are great questions to ask, not only what that is, but what does that actually mean? You know, is academic good standing a specific GPA? Or is it passing all of your classes? Because there may be a difference in that period. Other schools, it may just be, here’s your scholarship for the next three years, as long as you’re passing your classes you’re granted it, but you really want to keep track of that. There’s good questions you can ask. Let’s say, for example, that you have a scholarship that is in the top 50%. Now, typically, a lot of law schools grade on a curve, which means 50% are going to be in the bottom 50% and 50% will be in the top 50%. They’re also going to section you into different class sections, and so one of the questions to ask is, you know, is it mathematically eligible that, you know, I keep the scholarship in the top 50%? Now, one of the great things that students have going for them, and I know we’re going to talk about this a little bit, but every law school is required to post a chart that’s going to tell you how many scholarships they give each year, how many students then keep those scholarships. The question I believe specifically asked, you know, how many are reduced or removed? And you may see that number , and so it may be great and you’re happy with that number. You may see that number and [grunts]. You may want to go in and ask a few more questions. You know, there may be students that knew going in they got $20,000 for the first year and only $10,000 for the second and third. And they may have known that going in. but it’s a great resource for you all, because you can actually see firsthand how the last, not only last year was, but the last three years are required to be posted for students to see.
GISELE: That’s great, and so, yes, this is something, take out your pens, participants, and write it down. The report that Dean Heck is referring to is the ABA 509 report . And every law school in the country is required to have a link to their own 509 report right on their homepage. So, you’re able to compare and contrast and look sort of very finitely at what’s happening with scholarships. The other thing, you know, I think that it’s really important, what Dean Heck said about sort of understanding what you’re getting into. Everybody thinks that they’re going to be in the top 10% of the class, and in fact, only 10% of the people are in the top 10% of the class. So you need to be realistic, and that’s not to say, I think, that if you are awarded something, awarded a scholarship that has a maintenance requirement, that doesn’t mean that you should necessarily walk away from it, it just means that you have to go into this knowing that there’s a possibility that you might not have it for years two and three, and maybe that’s OK. Maybe financially, even that makes sense. But again, it’s just about having your eyes open. Dean Heck?
MICHELLE: And I was just also going to mention on that, like, don’t be bashful in asking what happens if you don’t meet that requirement. You know, I know some schools that have requirements that maybe you have another semester to get that GPA up or, you know, maybe it’s reduced, so don’t be bashful if it does have a requirement, always like to know what the backup plan is, because you may not have to go there and you may reach what the requirements are, but if you don’t, for whatever reason, or you get very stressed in law school and are concerned about that, you know up front what your options are if you miss that.
GISELE: That’s perfect, because it’s a perfect segue to sort of the next thing we want to talk about. And I saw some questions about it in the chat, and asking these questions can be hard. Is it viewed as sort of, you know, rude to be asking those kinds of questions or more so, what if you didn’t get the award that you hoped to get? How do you go about that? Appealing for more financial aid? Appealing for more scholarship money? What kind of advice can we put together here?
MICHELLE: Sure, so I think a couple of different things. And first off, we’re going to start on the politeness scale that I always tell students, because being polite, as you know, in the world gets you a whole lot further than demands in this process. It also starts a much better conversation when it actually is a conversation and not maybe, say, a cranky email or demand for more money; that never goes over well in this whole process. So we’ll kind of start with that. The second thing is that I know it can be challenging to ask these questions, and I think one of the next big points is to be organized. You know, there are going to be some questions that are very clearly on the website, or very clearly on that 509 report, that you can read. It’s going to be the questions that may not be somewhere, like what happens if I don’t reach the requirement of the scholarship? So when you’re looking at having the conversation, I strongly encourage you to make a list of what these questions are, and to do your homework, read your scholarship letter, you know, read your award letter, read the school’s website. So that way, when you do get to have the chance to have that conversation, you’ve done your homework and you’re ready to ask some of these questions that may not be available. The other big thing is one of the first steps sometimes is to just either, you know, call or send an email and ask, I have some questions regarding, you know, scholarships, federal loans; be specific in that email, because there may be a different person to discuss the federal loan side of things versus the scholarship side of things. So even sometimes sending that first email of, you know, I would like to talk to someone about these questions, and then just kind of go from there. You know, they may direct you to an information session. They may direct you to an individual person. They may say, “Hey, just, you know, send your questions in email.” But each school may be a little bit different, and that’s the best starting point. So that way then you can figure out, OK, am I going to have a Zoom and I need to make sure I’m all ready, or can I think about this and kind of construct the email in the right way, so when I do finally hit send, I’ve got everything covered in that email?
GISELE: I think that’s great. Sort of laying out the initial question and then following the lead of the school. because there’s going to be such school-specific sorts of conversations here that I feel like it’s important for applicants to pick up on. So my own example that I’ll use as someone who used to work on a law school campus and do a lot of this, is we had what was called an appeals process. So when students would approach the office asking for more aid, the first thing that we would say is, well, this is our appeals process. This is the form that you use, this is what is required. And from that point on, a student who had gone down that road, you know, was getting sort of the attention that they were asking for in terms of a review for an appeal, but for somebody who sort of asked the question and then went off on their own with sort of their own made-up process about how they wanted to be re-reviewed or how they wanted to be looked at, they were less likely to be successful, because they weren’t following the process of the individual school. So the way that we used to approach it, and I’d like to hear your reaction to this, as. this is what you see: We allowed appeals for very specific reasons, OK? And those reasons were: a change in the actual application data, which would be sort of an increase in a GPA or an increase in an LSAT; a change in your financial situation that was unexpected and happening now, so for example, a lost job, something along those lines, you had planned and been, you know, OK to pay for it in a particular way, but then this happened; and then there were the reviews for sort of similar law schools, really trying to make a choice and trying to sort of flatten out the financial end of it. And so, to say that it is very much about looking at schools that were similar, both in terms of where we were geographically and in outcomes, meaning the employment outcomes and the Bar pass outcomes that that school had. And then trying to make it so that, financially, this was truly a choice, that you weren’t choosing another law school just because it was a little bit less expensive. That was the way I always looked at it. What do you think?
MICHELLE: So great way to look at it. And I’m just actually going to build on what you said. You know, you’re going to do a lot of homework when it comes to law school; when it comes to asking for scholarships, doing your homework in this process is so important. And we know that many students go to law school because math is not their thing. This is the one time you want to make sure math is your thing. And what I mean by that is, we talked a little bit earlier about cost of attendance. So kind of on your point about schools being similar. We all love to feel very important. So when someone gets a scholarship and they’re like, I got 75% scholarship for my tuition, feels really great. Then another school may have, may have given you, like, $10,000. And you’re like, well, I don’t feel as great. Doing the math and realizing, maybe that school that gave you the $10,000 scholarship has a $12,000 tuition. And that school that gave you a 75% scholarship had a $50,000 tuition. And you start doing the math and realize, I have had many students over the years, have been doing this for 17 years, I guess, now, and many students over the years that will try and do them math and say, you know, I got this at this school and I got this at this school, and I do the math and think, OK, well, we’re still cheaper by a considerable amount of money. So when it goes to, if that is your point, that you’re trying to show a similar school, you want to look not only at what the tuition is and how much you’re actually paying, but taking other things into consideration. If a school has awarded you other, like, summer stipend programs, you want to put that as part of their funding.
The cost of attendance plays a huge factor as well, because as you mentioned, you know, a home in downtown D.C. is going to be more expensive than, say, a home in the Midwest, potentially. And so it may be that you receive a, technically a larger amount of money from a school in a specific area. So when you get ready to ask these questions and have these kind of scholarship appeals and negotiations, you want to make sure that you’ve done all of the math up front and truly have a point that you’re standing on. But another big thing, to be quite honest, you know, rankings can play a factor. One of the points that a lot of scholarships are awarded merit-based as we’ve discussed, may come off that 509 report around the median LSAT and the median GPA of that school. And so it’s a good question to ask, but many schools’ merit-based will kind of start at what their middle is. So if your GPA and LSAT is considerably lower than what that middle is, chances are your scholarship is probably a lot lower for that specific school. So another school where maybe your LSAT and GPA is maybe in the 75th percentile are probably going to offer you a higher scholarship. So it’s just making sure that when you’re looking at those similar-based schools, you’ve done your homework on all of those pieces.
GISELE: That’s great. I think that’s really good advice. So we have a bunch of questions, so I want to be sure; we have about 20 minutes left, and I want to be sure to reserve at least 10 or 15 to dig into some questions. But now what I’d like us to do is really talk about helping our participants know what to say, what not to say, you know, sort of in entering these conversations. I’ll start off by saying, I know one of the words, and I think most of my colleagues know this about me, that was a real trigger for me, was “negotiation.” Because I never viewed it from the school seat as a negotiation. I had a job to do, students are making a difficult decision, I’m trying to figure out where on the spectrum of: This student really wants to come to my school, and I really want this student in my class, where the scholarship decision really is the decision to be made. And how sort of everybody’s needs can be made met. And that’s why I always set out the process as an appeals process. And so that is one of the words, even though maybe not everybody feels as viscerally about “negotiation” as I do, that’s one of the words I might caution for folks to stay away from. What else might you give in terms of advice?
MICHELLE: Well, and I think the big thing is there are some schools flat-out on their website will say they do not change scholarships after they award an offer. So if it is one of those schools that has that very clearly, this is not a path that you want to go down to begin with, to try and work on the appeals process or whatever that case may be. I think the other big thing is how you choose to approach the conversation. I would much rather get an email from a student that says, “I’m very interested in your school; I’m having some financial discussions and realizing that I’m a little bit short, and I was wondering if I have either missed an opportunity or if there is anything else that I could look at to potentially increase my grant, scholarship or anything along those lines.” So it’s kind of more of opening a nice door of, like, “Hey, I’m very appreciative of what I have, but is there anything else I can do?” Because there may be other forms that they encourage you to fill out. The answer may be no, there’s nothing else you can do. It may be directing you to the appeals process, but at least you’ve taken a more proactive, on your part, that you are the one, instead of insisting to the school that they, you know, change your scholarship for X, Y, and Z reason. Sometimes it may also open the door to discuss, you know, if it’s a school that reconsiders the LSAT or something, you know, the discussion may be back on your part. So you do have to be prepared for the answer. You know, the answer may be, you know, that they encourage you to resit the LSAT or do something like that. So if you come back and your answer’s, like, yeah, I don’t really want to do that, That may be, you know, where the scholarship appeal is going a little bit later in the process. So I feel like that’s a more gentle way to kind of get into it, but still, be able to get all your points across, because it also opens the door that maybe you could, you know, you’re looking at several schools, it may, the admissions person may say, you know, do you have other offers from other schools? Can you send those other offers? And that sort of thing.
GISELE: Yep. Have you ever heard of a school withdrawing a scholarship because a student appealed for more money?
MICHELLE: I have, actually, and I would say that the entire situation came down to the tone and actions of that student. And so it kind of got to the point that was more of: You’re going into the legal profession. It’s a very professional, you know, situation, you have to answer a lot of character and fitness questions on your application to get to this point. And we’re trying to make sure that we are admitting individuals in the process that represent themselves in a way that we know when they have clients, they are also going to represent themselves in that way. And so the whole situation kind of got on the ethical professionality. So it was not that they sent an email and all of a sudden it was withdrawn, it was nothing along those lines, but it all came down to the tone and, you know, the attitude of the student as they went through that process.
GISELE: Yeah. So don’t be badgering, right?
MICHELLE: Right, absolutely. And I think the biggest thing is being sincere. You know, I mean, I, as a law school, wish that I had an enormous pile of money that I could just give out and, you know, need-based and all that kind of stuff. Unfortunately, I have a smaller pot of money and this is all I have for the year, and, you know, we have to make it go a certain amount of way. So sometimes it’s not a matter of that, but just being sincere and telling us, you know, and the answer may be, there is nothing. I’m very sorry, there’s nothing we can do. It may be that there’s nothing can do at this time. As we talked about, scholarships being on a rolling basis, there are times that as students withdraw from that school, that that school may have more money to eventually come back around. Now, that doesn’t mean you email every week and say, “Hey, do you have any more money yet?” But there will be kind of, as you have these discussions with the person at the school, that they may ask you to check back in a period of time.
GISELE: That’s great. That brings up another thing to cover. Are there ever opportunities for scholarships in the 2L or 3L year?
MICHELLE: That is a great question to ask per school. It really ranges from school to school. Some are going to be merit-based; I have known of some schools that sometimes will go back and look at a certain GPA or students, maybe, that came in with very little money or no money that, you know, score really high. There may be some scholarships for involvement in law school. Like if you were on a law review or, you know, you rank a certain class; sometimes those come down to donors. I will be honest though, I don’t really know of many schools that that pot of money is massive. You know, I think most of the pots of money are going to happen in that first year. So you really want to ask the school specifically.
GISELE: Yeah, I know of a school that has scholarships that are earmarked for 2L students who came in without any scholarship money who then perform, you know, in whatever top percentage of the class it is. So there is sometimes money, but to Dean Heck’s point, it’s generally not a lot, but a great question to be asked. All of these questions you definitely want to dig in on. All right, so let’s get into some of the questions that we have. There’s a couple of questions from non-traditional students. So let’s talk about that a little bit. Is the process any different? Are the arriving criteria any different?
MICHELLE: You know, and that’s one of the hard things I know for not just non-traditional students, but students that may be married or have children and all of that. When it comes to loans, that money is to support you through law school, not necessarily you and your family. And that’s a discussion I love to have with students individually, because sometimes we talk about budgeting and what can and can’t happen, but, you know, getting loan money is not to support your whole family through law school. Now, you may be blessed with lots of scholarships. Process is typically the same. Some students, I’m going to add on this, some students on this call may be looking at part-time programs. It’s very similar in this process, it’s a great question to ask schools. Some part-time programs have scholarships, some part-time programs do not have scholarships, but it’s a great question to see what you are eligible for.
GISELE: Great. I love this question. If you accept a very generous scholarship in April, is there a norm, a question of ethics that you are committing if a school you preferred two months later moves you to an admitted student off a wait list or something; are you obligated to keep that first commitment?
MICHELLE: So this is a great question. And this goes back to reading all of the information. There are some scholarships out there, especially at some schools that may be full tuition or something along those lines, that may be in the binding process. And so if you sign anything - you’re getting ready to be lawyers - if anything that you’re committing to, early decision binding programs or some of these scholarships, then yes, it would be completely unethical two months down the road to go through that process. Now, there are others that it’s just a scholarship and you pay a deposit, and it’s a great question to ask, if I put the deposit down and change my mind later, you may lose the deposit, you know, but we do see that. No. 1 thing, though, that I strongly encourage students, if you end up switching schools, let’s say it is an ethical thing to do and it was not binding, let the first school know. Not only is it a matter of letting the school know - sometimes people get embarrassed or that; you know, I promise you, we will be OK. I mean, we will miss you, but we will be OK. But what you’re actually doing is hurting some of your future colleagues that may be on the wait list. So it’s just a simple, sometimes form, sometimes email, but if you do end up moving schools, to make sure you let the other school know so that they can move down their row of students, just like you, who are waiting on the other school for students that were waiting on them as well.
GISELE: Yeah, and to add to that thought, as you sort of mentioned before, aside from maybe making a spot for somebody from the wait list, you may actually be freeing up scholarship money for somebody else who hasn’t heard yet or is waiting or has requested an appeal. So yeah, it’s good to be ... In this process, I mean, I think you’ve heard this before as applicants, you’ve heard sort of about the candor that’s required within the application process, going through the character and fitness process; all of that is really important, but I would say it extends to this as well. I mean, admissions people want to believe that when you say, “You’re the first choice school, and this is where I really want to go, and but for $2,000 more in my scholarship, my choice would be made.” I urge you all to only use words that are true, to not just say that. Feedback?
MICHELLE: I will, and I would echo that, that I have, many times over the years, had a student tell me that, but I can tell it’s a copied-and-pasted email that they either sent to multiple schools and forgot to change my name in it, or they added everybody on the same email and just sent it through. So, again, being very honest, and I am going to add one more tidbit . When we talk about talking to schools, you know, we want you guys to come to us. You know, whether it be admissions questions or scholarships, we strongly encourage you coming to us. And I know these days, there’s a lot of blogs out there, you know, Reddit and so many other things you’re reading. The best information you can get is from the school specifically, not your other individuals that are trying to give you advice, who may or may not have been honest about what their LSAT and GPA was when they’re giving you this advice. So make sure you’re getting the information from the source and not from everybody else that may not have the full information.
GISELE: Great. So we asked for specific information for non-traditional students. We asked if there was anything specific for international students; here’s another one. Any specific advisement you would give to splitters? And for those of you in our audience who might not know what a splitter is, a splitter is somebody with a high LSAT score and low GPA, or vice versa, low GPA, I mean, high GPA and low LSAT score. How does that work, sort of, in the scholarship realm?
MICHELLE: So I think it’s going to be a different answer for each one. So a lot of times when we see the high GPA and the lower LSAT score, we know that many students academically, you are very strong, you’ve done very well in your undergraduate work that has taken a long period of time to get, where sometimes that splitter, it may be a conversation with a student of, was there something that went wrong with the LSAT? You know, do you need to retest, did you have a bad test day? And so, sometimes splitters in that fashion, the advice may be a little bit different, of, is there a way to potentially increase that LSAT score, so there’s not as drastic of a difference? Where on the other side of the coin, when we have a high LSAT score and a low GPA, unfortunately, you can’t change your GPA overnight. It is not a mathematical equation, even if you started in really hard now, to change. And there may be reasons. Maybe you’ve done very well in your GPA the last couple years, but when you started college, it was a little lower, and something along those lines. And so that situation sometimes is a little bit different. Best way, though, for both of these is to really talk to the school specifically, because it’s a conversation that sometimes schools will have to say, you know what, if you retook the LSAT, it really wouldn’t matter in this process, you know, where others may say, yes, this is what we need to do, others may say, you know, if you go do X, Y, and Z, we will re-evaluate your file on that. I just, again, with splitters, one of the things to keep in mind, you know, you may have a really high LSAT score that’s in the school’s, you know, 75th percentile or higher, but with that GPA, don’t expect that your scholarship is necessarily going to be the top scholarship, just because one number is in that range and the other number is not.
GISELE: OK, here’s another one, and I actually saw some of this. So I’m interested in your reaction to this. Could there be any potential negative perception if I applied for admission now for next fall, then declined to attend because the scholarship package is not large enough to be financially feasible for me, and then apply again? Like, what do you think about that reapplicant - specifically, students who were admitted and didn’t come.
MICHELLE: So I think when students do that, sometimes, the assumption is always, “If I apply early enough next year, the scholarship is going to be higher.” And I’m going to tell you that many times I have seen several different factors happen. The next year, the student, maybe that school’s LSAT and GPA increases and they don’t even get into the school the next year. Or they get in and the scholarship was even lower than it was the previous year. So I think a lot of times students function on the mentality that “If I had just done it sooner, if I’m earlier, I’m going to get more money from that process.” So that’s just something to be very, very careful of. I will say that some schools I know, if they don’t really know why you left them to begin with, they may not be as likely to admit you the next year. Not just a matter of scholarships, but they may say, you know what? We admitted this person last year and they chose not to come, and we have no idea, they just didn’t pay their deposit, so obviously they weren’t interested. If truly a financial situation, I would talk to this school. I mean, you know, ask them questions like, would it have been different? What are their recommendations on the process? Now, one of the things I’m going to put in a plug for is just all about, you know, one of the things about finding the best-fit law school is finding the school that you feel comfortable with in all situations. So when you’re talking about money and finances, if you’re having a really difficult time and things aren’t going well, then maybe that’s not the school that’s the best fit, because this is going to be how situations may be handled all three years. And so that’s just something to keep in mind sometimes of: When you’re looking for the best fit, keep in mind this is a difficult conversation, but how you approach and how this school handles it may also help you decide if this is where you want to spend your next three years.
GISELE: I love that; I think that’s really true. That is great. So here’s another one. In a time where so many things have shifted to hybrid/online, are there significant differences in scholarships and financial aid for online and hybrid programs? Do you, I don’t think Richmond has an online program, right?
MICHELLE: We do not, and I know it’s an area that is growing, so to kind of give a background, you know, there are a few accredited hybrid or online law school programs out there. They’re going to have very specific scholarships, so it’s a great question to answer. Again, I can’t speak for all, but I’m going to say for the traditional law school these days, the biggest change we’ve seen is an increase in need. Unfortunately, though, with a lot of scholarships that are merit-based, you know, there’s not a lot that has changed in that. It has changed some of our, you know, loans or, you know, budgeting work that we work with students on.
GISELE: Great. So I know there are still a lot of questions; I’m going to ask if we could be sure to hook up in the chat the link to the LSAC financial resources. I’m going to ask this last question of you, Dean Heck, and then give you a minute for any final recommendations that you might have for the audience. This is a good one, though. When is a good time to negotiate for scholarships? Like, is there a timing factor to all of this? And I said the word “negotiate,” I meant to say “appeal.”
MICHELLE: Yes, yes there is. And I’m going to say not the last minute. You know, I mean, as you are applying through the cycle, there’s different times that you get your information. So you want to make sure you’ve gotten your information and have done your homework, but you want to make sure that you open that conversation long before your deposit is due. So, you know, if you have all of your information in February, you’re doing these events, and then let’s say the school’s deposit is April 15 and you contact them on April the 14th, there’s not a lot that can happen. Now, they may have said check back as it gets closer. So you want to make sure that you’re allowing plenty of time through this process. Now, if you apply in September, it may be a different conversation that you have. Is there anything else I can work on, on my file? Great way, remember, we’re being proactive about this, you know, that you can do to be reconsidered, but you know, sooner is better than later, but make sure you at least have all of your information or make sure you’re not jumping the gun and maybe scholarships haven’t even gone out for that specific school.
GISELE: Perfect. All right, final words of wisdom, Dean Heck.
MICHELLE: Do your homework, but have fun with this. And, you know, we talked about the 509, there’s one website, you can look at all of the schools on one, so make your sheets and look at it. But just remember, like, this process is stressful, but it also should be fun and exciting. And, you know, part of this process is determining what you’re going to do, you know, and money, sometimes can play a factor in that. So find the best fit for you, whatever that is, whatever the scholarship amount is so that you know you made the right decision financially and with everything else in your life.
GISELE: Perfect. I want to thank you so much, Dean Heck for joining us. I always love getting in these conversations with you; to be continued. I loved doing it with our participants here today. So I want to thank everyone here today for joining us. We’ve done our best to answer as many questions as possible today, but we understand it is not possible to have responded to everyone. If you have questions, please feel free to email us at ambassadors@LSAC.org; we can pop that into the chat. We are heading to the schedule of LawHub webinars, depending where you are in your law school application journey. I would like to encourage you to join us for events coming up in March, on March 2, March 23, and March 31. If you don’t already have a LawHub account, be sure to set one up today. Look out for learning opportunities every single month, stay connected with LSAC on social media, and stay tuned for updates about webinars coming your way March, April, and beyond, as well as more information about the upcoming Admission Unmasked and Law School Unmasked programs coming this summer. We look forward to seeing you all again soon. Thanks for joining us.
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