Tyler Roberts 2017-11-08 06:28:35
Tips for maximizing your scholarship potential and cutting down on the cost of a law degree. Jordan Rothman graduated from Georgetown University Law Center $197,890.20 in debt. While certainly eye-popping, it could have been much worse if Rothman hadn’t made a savvy move after his first year of law school. He left Washington and Lee University School of Law – his initial school – for Georgetown University, where he was offered a need-based scholarship. Pre-law students may look at Rothman’s debt and shudder, but his story shows how scholarships can dramatically reduce the loan amount a student needs. If Rothman had stayed at Washington and Lee University, which does not offer need-based scholarships, his debt could have been considerably higher. Instead, Rothman, who landed a coveted job in Big Law after graduation, was able to pay off his student loans within four years of finishing law school, something that would have been impossible if he had not transferred. “I still had to borrow a lot of money to finance my education,” Rothman said, “but the financial aid I received helped lessen my student debt burden and allowed me to pay off my loans while I was still in my 20s.” Rothman initially chose Washington and Lee University, a private school that offered no scholarship money, over less-expensive options. He placed more value on bar-passage rates and post-graduate employment opportunities that a prestigious school brings than on cost. Washington and Lee University also was the best law school to offer him admission. Alison Monahan, co-founder of Law School Toolbox, said many people spend substantially more to attend schools that while slightly higher ranked, may not result in significantly better job prospects than less expensive schools. “While certainly there are schools worth paying a lot for,” she said, “in general, I encourage people to seriously consider taking scholarship money and/or attending a school with lower tuition.” Many students do take Monahan’s approach. Schools seeking to increase their admission profiles often provide lucrative scholarships to competitive applicants. In turn, many applicants select law schools based on the scholarships. Rothman said he knows many law students who take this more fiscally conservative approach. Looking back on his own experience, he knows his debt load would have been significantly lighter had he initially accepted a scholarship at a less competitive school. "Ask for the moon. All these schools are in a cage match for students.” —TRAVIS HORNSBY, FOUNDER, STUDENT LOAN PLANNER But that was not the end of his journey. As he tells it, the “grade gods” blessed him in his first semester of law school, and he was able to transfer to Georgetown University. Though he was not eligible for merit-based scholarships, Georgetown University’s need-based scholarship covered 40 percent of his tuition. Scholarships are the tickets many students need to attend law school without having to mortgage their 20s and 30s to pay for the degree. The most common type of scholarship students receive from law schools is a merit-based scholarship, but need-based scholarships may also be available. Law school applicants should consider both, Rothman said, as either could save them tens of thousands of dollars. Law schools award merit scholarships to competitive applicants who typically have high LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs. According to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, or LSSSE, a high LSAT score is the surest path to receiving a lucrative scholarship. Ninety percent of respondents to the survey with LSAT scores above 165 received merit scholarships, compared with just 16 percent of respondents with scores of 140 or lower. Applicants should look at merit scholarships with a skeptical eye, Monahan warned. Many merit-based scholarships are tools used to raise a law school’s admissions profile and come with strict conditions, such as maintaining a high GPA. “You have to understand how likely it is,” for you to meet those conditions, Monahan said. “Not everyone will be able to keep their scholarship after the first year.” Seventy-nine percent of scholarships awarded to survey respondents were merit based, and 21 percent were need-based, according to data from the American Bar Association. Unlike merit scholarships, need-based scholarships are based on the financial needs of the applicants. As Rothman learned, not every law school offers need-based scholarships. He recommends that pre-law students research which schools grant need-based scholarships and see if they qualify. Then, students can compare need-based scholarships they might receive from more competitive J.D. programs against merit scholarships from less competitive programs. "Check bar-passage rates, employment rates, areas of legal specialization, internship opportunities and the state you want to practice in.” —LYSSA THADEN, MANAGING DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR EDUCATION AND FINANCIAL CAPABILITY AT ACCESSLEX INSTITUTE “It is so important to consider need-based financial aid when you are planning to apply to law school,” Rothman said. “These programs are based on your income. If you go straight to law school from college, you will be more likely to qualify for these types of programs. But if you work a few years before going back to school, your income may disqualify you.” Scholarships can have a tremendous effect on the amount of money a student owes after graduation. The LSSSE survey shows that students with more than $200,000 of debt were half as likely to have received a merit-based scholarship as those with $80,000 or less debt. Scholarships can also be used as bargaining chips, and students can sometimes negotiate a better scholarship. “Ask for the moon,” said Travis Hornsby, founder of Student Loan Planner. “All these schools are in a cage match for students. The next generation of students will be much smaller, and it is going to be harder and harder to compete for this small group of applicants.” In addition to seeking out scholarships, law students can reduce the amount of money they need to borrow by enrolling at public, in-state institutions, which are considerably less expensive. Law school applicants may be attracted to the prestige of private and out-of-state programs, but those programs are often not good financial choices, Hornsby said. “Unless an applicant wanted to work in a large law firm in New York, I would tell them to go to an in-state program that is more affordable,” Hornsby said. “If you have a good LSAT score, you might be able to get a half-tuition scholarship. It is better to do that than go to a top private school at $60,000 a year.” Estimating your future debt load is not as easy as adding up living expenses and tuition, then multiplying by three, Hornsby said. “It is going to be a lot worse than that,” he said. “People are surprised by how much (debt) they leave law school with.” That’s because student debt begins accumulating interest even before you graduate. So, Hornsby advises multiplying three years of tuition and living costs by 1.25. The total is the number you should consider when deciding to accept a merit-based scholarship, attend an instate program or enroll in a competitive private law school. Still, cost should not be the only factor that drives an applicant’s decision to enroll in one law school over another. Lyssa Thaden, managing director of the Center for Education and Financial Capability at AccessLex Institute, said law school applicants should keep their career objectives in mind. “Taking the stress of having to pay for law school off the table can help you focus on your academics and pursue maximum success,” Thaden said. “That’s definitely worth a lot, but it’s always worth looking at the bigger picture. Check bar-passage rates, employment rates, areas of legal specialization, internship opportunities and the state you want to practice in.”
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