The Basics of Law School Financial Aid
There’s excitement in the admissions process. It’s motivating to get emails from law schools, consider where you might spend the next three years, and to think about starting your legal career. For many applicants, financing law school is a more daunting process and becomes secondary. My financial aid co-workers often felt unheralded during open houses, admitted student days, and the application process in general. However, the financial aid piece is a necessary aspect of law school enrollment and one that benefits you most if you consider it early on in the process, not just at the end.
There are a number of great resources available regarding law school financial aid, so this is simply meant to provide an overview of highlighted details, as well as a few general financial tips that may help you as a law student and beyond. I often heard from applicants that they didn’t qualify for any/much aid as an undergraduate, so they weren’t going to apply for need-based aid, or look for outside grants and scholarships as a law student. An important first point is that as a law school applicant, you are often considered financially independent of your parents. Review the details and links below for graduate financial aid information that can help you navigate the process.
Consider the types of aid available:
Gift Aid (money received from the school that you are not required to repay)
- Merit scholarships* – based on your “merit," primarily your LSAT and GPA
- Need-based grants – based on your need and determined by completion of your FAFSA and, for some schools, the CSS Profile
- Outside scholarships (ex. from state or county bar associations) – you will need to search for these and see where you may qualify. Many law school/university financial aid offices have websites that list options.
*Note: Yale, Stanford, and Harvard have not in past years offered merit scholarships, only need-based aid
Federal Work Study (FWS) – many law schools offer this as part of your financial aid package. If you qualify for FWS, you would work in an approved part-time work study position and earn a paycheck.
Veterans Benefits – If you are a veteran or dependent of a veteran, check on your GI Bill Tier eligibility for law study and also research Yellow Ribbon universities.
Federal Loans – check here for descriptions of the Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS loans available to graduate and professional students.
*Loans taken out for the 2020-2021 school year; interest rates are as of October 1, 2020
** Commercial loan rates are usually based on Prime rates or LIBOR with a percentage on top of that based on lendee's credit score.
Pay Attention to Deadlines:
- Don’t wait to start the financial aid process until you’ve learned of your admission to law schools. Consider it as part of the process!
- FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) – available Oct. 1st.
The FAFSA is used to help law schools even the playing field and is a form that helps financial aid administrators determine a student’s eligibility for grants, federal work study, and federal student loans.
- For students applying as a fall 2021 candidate, you will use your 2019 tax information (considered the “prior-prior” year). You can go back later to make adjustments if needed.
- Even if the posted FAFSA deadline isn’t until the spring, don’t wait, as schools can risk running out of funds later in the admissions cycle.
- You can designate up to 10 law schools on your FAFSA. If you are applying to more than 10 schools, you can go back and add them once your FAFSA has been processed. Each school has its own school code, and you can usually find these on the law school’s financial aid website or at fafsa.gov.
- Law schools often have their own financial aid office or representative. If not within the law school itself, most schools have main campus financial aid representative for graduate/professional/law students who are knowledgeable on the specifics of the FAFSA and other aid options for law students. USE THEM!
- Some law schools require additional institutional financial aid applications such as the CSS Profile (a fee-based application) for additional aid consideration.
- What stipulations surround the scholarship award you’ve been awarded? Does it have a minimum GPA you must maintain to keep it?
- What happens if you lose your scholarship?
- Are there additional opportunities to earn a scholarship in 2L or 3L years?
- What might my repayments look like if I borrow $X?
- Is there a service component as part of my award?
Understand Cost of Attendance (COA):
Most students understand that a law school’s tuition is just one piece of the overall cost, but be sure you understand the full picture and also plan for increases each year. When schools refer to their “Cost of Attendance” they are adding together:
- Tuition (note the differences between in-state and out-of-state tuition costs)
- Average Room and Board (typically displayed as a 9-month academic year cost, not full year, for rent + estimated cost for food)
- Fees (some schools have minimal yearly fees, while others are thousands of dollars)
- Books (have you seen law school books?)
- Travel cost estimates
- Health Insurance
Each law school will determine its estimated annual cost of attendance, and they are required to list this on their website. You cannot borrow more than the school’s COA, and law school financial aid officers can help you determine how to fill any gaps to responsibly borrow up to the school’s cost of attendance.
Maintain Good Credit:
Having a good credit history is extremely important to your financial health and ability to take out loans, but unfortunately is often something that students don’t think about until they are in the process of borrowing for law school.
A credit check is part of the process for obtaining a Graduate PLUS loan, and having poor credit could affect this and require that you have a co-signer (someone with strong credit who serves as an endorser for your loan and agrees to repay if you are unable.) Students with poor credit and no co-signer often have to take on private loans that carry very high interest rates and fees. This is a good time to minimize consumer debt – pay off credit cards and create a budget to help you track your current spending.
Review Tips for Good Borrowing Habits:
Live like a student
- Consider a part-time job
- Find a roommate(s) and choose a modest apartment
- Learn to cook at home/make your own coffee, etc.
- Keep the COVID-19 situation in mind. We are likely looking at a W shaped recovery that may have us in a recessive economy longer than intially anticpated. The longer this looks to last, the more frugally-minded you may want to be.
- Mike Spivey, who was a dean of career services during the Great Recesssion, did a job search podcast here .
- Don’t automatically borrow the maximum
- Compare the variable costs (the non-fixed costs) of the school’s COA with what you think your actual expenses will be
- Borrow the least amount you think you’ll need – you can always increase loans later if needed
Know What You Owe
- Understand the terms & conditions of your student loans, such as interest rates, fees, and repayment requirements
- Stay on top of correspondence from your loan servicer
- Pay interest while in school if you can
AccessLex is an outstanding resource for law students to research information about the costs surrounding their legal education. Take the time to explore their online resources and do your own school comparisons as part of your overall considerations for which law school is best for you.
Start now! We’ve posted this in July to encourage you to think about taking the necessary steps to navigate through the financial aid maze and to help you become a more knowledgeable financial consumer.