Law schools are competing aggressively over the greatly reduced applicant pool that we’ve seen in recent years. Most lower ranked schools have had to compromise and reduce class size as well as let in students with weaker numbers (LSAT and GPA). While T14s have had to lower selectivity and drop class size a tiny bit, generally, they are holding the same standards. T14’s and the other big top 25 schools are winning the battle to get students in a big way. While the prestige of the institutions is certainly helping them attract the top applicants, perhaps the biggest factor is that these schools have very deep pockets and can hand out tempting scholarship offers.
Schools with healthy endowments such as the t14 schools and many of the schools ranked just below the t14 have been able to throw more and more money into financial aid in recent years.
Before the recession, top students often had larger money offers from lower schools. What would happen then is that a lower ranked school would offer a lot of highly qualified applicants a big scholarship, knowing that usually very few of them were going to take it (as most students at that time went to the highest ranked school they could get into). Higher schools would offer much lower scholarships to the same applicants, knowing they could get them with that offer. The general rule in law school scholarships (with exceptions in the case of need-based aid) is that schools offer the smallest amount of money that they think will draw you to a school.
Now the higher ranked law schools are finding that they too need larger scholarships to draw in highly ranked students, and all the evidence suggests that they are stepping up to the plate. Meanwhile lower schools haven’t been equally able to bring more money to the table.
A recent Washington Post article covered this effect among the DC area law schools, where we can see how the higher ranked schools are clearly out-performing the rest when it comes to drawing students. Georgetown enrollment is down a bare 8% from 2010, and their admissions standards have remained close to where they were. George Washington, traditionally a ~T25 school, has done worse but not bad: a big financial aid push allowed them to recover this year to almost 2010 enrollment numbers. Slide on down to #41 George Mason and the picture is bleak to say to the least: the class is at half its size and admissions standards have slipped as well.
The Dean of George Mason lays his problems on not having enough money to compete:
“Some of the programs against which we compete are very old and rich programs,” he said. “We do have some scholarships and financial aid, but not a lot … Schools that are very rich are able to fill their classes with the very best kids, and price is no object for them.” (source)
This same pattern is happening all over the country. The lesson to would be law students is that you should be very skeptical about attending a school that is under-performing in terms of financial aid. Don’t go unless you are sure you got a very good offer there. And yes, that may mean that you shouldn’t go to law school. If you can’t get in somewhere at a great price, there are likely better options for your future out there besides law school. We cover the situations where we feel law school is a ‘safer’ bet here.
Also be aware that you need to negotiate like crazy with law schools- the first offer they give you may be nowhere close to what they are willing to pay to reel you in. We discuss this here.
Overall, law school is slowly moving towards a model similar to that we have in place for undergrad, where very few people pay the ticket price to attend. However, the richer schools near the top and especially the t14 are way further along with this and are likelier to provide you a legal education at a good value. Don’t be a member of the last generation to pay too much for a law degree: be careful weighing your choices so that what you get out is worth what you pay in.