Analyzing and Understanding Conditional Scholarships

One of the most important factors when deciding where to attend law school is an applicant's financial aid package. These days, the majority of law school applicants receive some form of merit-based assistance. Some of this merit aid comes in the form of what is known as a "conditional scholarship."

What is a conditional scholarship? The ABA defines it as follows:

A conditional scholarship is any financial aid award, the retention of which is dependent upon the student maintaining a minimum grade point average or class standing, other than that ordinarily required to remain in good academic standing.

The ABA does not regulate what the conditions may be, simply that they be clearly disclosed to the student at the time the offer is made. Theoretically, a school could demand that a recipient be the top performing student in their class, though this would be absurd and doesn't happen in real life.

If you are out of compliance with the conditions in your scholarship, then the school has the right to reduce or eliminate your merit aid. It's pretty straightforward.

If you receive a scholarship offer that requires you to maintain a certain GPA, class rank, etc.—other than good academic standing—you have received a conditional scholarship offer and should think very carefully about whether or not to accept the school's offer. This can be a decision with life-altering implications. We are not saying to decline it at all—rather just to know the ramifications of that offer versus scholarships without conditions and to make an informed decision.

Conditional Scholarship Data

ABA 509 data provides a complete breakdown of conditional scholarships being offered by both individual law schools and the overall population of law schools generally.

In 2019, there were 84 law schools that reported matriculating students with conditional scholarships. Of those, 12 reported that no students had their scholarships reduced or eliminated, and a further 3 schools reported only a single student with a reduced or eliminated scholarship. In total, there were 9,223 students who matriculated in 2018 with conditional scholarships. Of those, 2,492 saw their scholarships reduced or eliminated—a reduction/loss rate of 27%.

Fortunately, as you can see below, the percentage of students with a conditional scholarship reduced or eliminated has been declining slightly over the past few years.

However, it is important to understand that the national average reduction/loss rate is very different from the reduction/loss rate at a specific school. There are 36 law schools with reduction/loss rates in excess of the 27% national average. In fact, there are 27 law schools where over a third of those matriculating with conditional scholarships see them reduced or eliminated. There are even 6 schools where you are more likely to lose your scholarship than to keep it.

Law School Transparency helpfully organizes the data into easily sortable/searchable formats here.

It's also interesting, and perhaps concerning, to note that the percentage of students matriculating with conditional scholarships has been growing (slightly) for the past couple of years.

This growth coincides with a rebound in the volume of applicants to law school. It's possible the two are unrelated, though we doubt it—generally, more competitive application cycles give schools more power in the selection and financial aid process.

What to Do If You Receive a Conditional Scholarship

Don't just check the conditions and go about your day. Conditional scholarships require you take a proactive approach of doing research and advocating for yourself.

  1. Make sure you clearly understand the conditions. If your offer states you need to maintain a 3.1 GPA, but indicates no corresponding class ranking, you need to research what a 3.1 GPA actually means at that school—is it top 25%, top 40%, median, etc.? Curves differ from school to school; don't assume they're alike. This is very important to look into.
  2. Check the consequences of non-compliance. What are the school's procedures if you don't meet the conditions? Is there an automatic loss/reduction in scholarship, or is their a probation period? If you return to compliance with the conditions, is the scholarship reinstated? Does the school offer an appeals process, and what does it look like? Is there formal guidance or is it an informal system?
  3. Understand your odds. Check the ABA 509 report or Law School Transparency to see how many students have had scholarships reduced or eliminated at that school over the years.
  4. Talk to current students (if possible). It's always awkward talking about money, but try and get a sense from current students what it's like having a conditional scholarship at that school.  
  5. Negotiate! If you were admitted, you have leverage. If you have been admitted to other similarly or higher ranked schools you have a great deal of leverage. If you have a scholarship, even conditional, you have more leverage. No school has ever, to our knowledge, come close to revoking an offer of admission or aid for politely negotiating. There's literally zero downside to doing so, but the typical applicant does not do this enough. Use other offers, explain your concerns, try to get the conditions on your scholarships taken away or changed.
  6. Related to the above, consider retaking the LSAT. A higher LSAT score is the best leverage you'll be able to create for yourself to negotiate away those conditions.
  7. Do the math for various scenarios of losing your scholarship and how much debt you'd have at graduation if that happened. Make yourself look at those numbers and understand they are very real possibilities.
  8. Get input from friends and family. Talk to people. Getting other perspectives is always a good idea.

Should You Accept a Conditional Scholarship?

Conditional scholarships are, by their very nature, a risky endeavor. First year law school classes (and many 2L and 3L classes) are graded on a curve. There will be a set number of A+ grades, As,  A-s, B+s, Bs, etc. etc. The grades for the class will generally look like a standard distribution chart on a bell curve. It's not going to be like the undergraduate programs most law school applicants are familiar with, where there's no curve and theoretically everyone can get an A. You'll be in direct competition with your classmates for good grades.

Why does this matter if you have a conditional scholarship? Because generally, you have significantly less control over your law school grades than you might otherwise expect. Yes, studying matters and makes a difference. But you'll be competing against folks who are doing the exact same thing, many of whom will be motivated by the same concern you have: retaining their scholarship.

A good rule of thumb: assume you'll be around the average for your class. This doesn't just apply to conditional scholarships; it applies to clinic/internship opportunities, transfer chances, and job outcomes. Your likeliest outcome is that you'll be part of the big chunk of students clustered around the median. So if you plan accordingly, you're less likely to be unpleasantly surprised—and more likely to be pleasantly surprised.

So if your conditional scholarship requires you to stay in the top third of your class, well, that's risky business right there. Top half, less so, but still essentially a coinflip. If you're seriously considering accepting a conditional scholarship, you should sit down and decide just how much risk you're willing to accept.

And please remember that there are very, very real consequences to having your scholarship reduced or eliminated, especially if it happens early in your law school education, or is a large scholarship, or worse both. You could be looking at six figures or more of extra debt when you graduate if you have your scholarship reduced or eliminated.

At the end of the day, only you can decide if a conditional scholarship is worth the risk. It's your life and your choice. But please make sure you fully understand the data and the potential downsides. We're talking about tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's not a decision that can be made lightly.