Old-fashioned lawyers sometimes use an old-fashioned locution for asking questions: “Query why…,” they might say, or “query whether…” blah blah blah. My dad was one such old-fashioned lawyer, and I grew up thinking it was a fairly normal way of framing an inquiry. It isn’t, though. I quickly learned that once I got to law school and never heard a professor younger than my dad say anything like it. But the phrasing rattles around in my head nonetheless, and last weekend it formed itself into the following thought: “Query why the New York Times would pick the day after every law school in the nation requires a deposit to publish a quite useful and interesting article about a potential peril of merit scholarships.” Seems like that article might have been pretty useful, oh, about a month ago.
To be honest, however embarrassing this confession of ignorance ought to be, until I read the article I was unaware that lots of law schools offer merit scholarships contingent on attaining a particular GPA, and then withdraw the scholarship if a student doesn’t attain it—thus up-ending settled expectations. I had in the past heard about the practice in connection with a couple of newly established law schools, but wrongly believed those schools constituted the total universe. In those cases, the entire entering class was getting a full scholarship (a necessity to get any significant number of risk-averse people to enroll when a school is unaccredited and has no track record)—and that level of commitment is obviously financially untenable in the long term. While it seemed clearly unfortunate for the people whose scholarships were withdrawn, I wrongly believed it was a practice that affected very few students. Color me blithely oblivious to the fact that it was a matter of routine at a number of well-established institutions.
In fact, I was mildly/good-naturedly taken aback when, back in April, a young woman to whom we had offered a scholarship asked how many incoming students with the particular scholarship typically forfeited it after the first year. I had never been asked that before, and I couldn’t imagine why she thought forfeiture was something to worry about; I can only conclude now that she was better-educated than I about the proclivities of law school financial aid offices. She expected there to be some people who had been disfavored this way, and she wanted to weigh her own odds based on the data I provided. So, although my answer was, from a recruiting standpoint, favorable (“None”), the absence of any on-the-one-hand-, on-the-other-hand considerations for me to deconstruct left me worried that she’d think that I was hiding something.
But there you have it; suspiciously upbeat or not, that was the correct answer. If Michigan Law gives you a merit scholarship, you keep it so long as you have a full courseload and maintain a 2.0 GPA. If you don’t maintain that GPA, you have a larger problem than keeping your scholarship: you are on academic probation. Now, I think saying it’s incredibly rare for someone to get below a 2.0 at this law school in any given semester is a fair characterization—and in any event, in my ten years in this position, we have never had someone lose his or her scholarship because of low grades. I’m not even sure what we’d do if the issue arose. Maybe the person who lost the scholarship would get it back if the grades got back above a 2.0; I literally have no idea, because it is wholly uncharted territory.
The New York Times interviewed a number of folks who were contemplating the imminent loss of their scholarship, as well as some administrators. They characterized one administrator as “acknowledg[ing] that the lost merit scholarships have been the source of much campus misery.” Indeed. There is something particularly lamentable about having the loss of money tied to below-median grades; the phrase “adding insult to injury” leaps to mind. Now, one commentator—Robert Morse, of U.S. News ranking fame—took this position: “[T]hese students are going to law school and they need to learn to read the fine print.” A fair enough point, I suppose, but doesn’t it seem a little unreasonable for law schools to attach this level of penalty to a lack of lawyerly habits when the students in question have not yet had the benefit of any law school learning?