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(Meriel Jane Waissman / iStockphoto)

The American Bar Association Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education recently released its report identifying factors driving the high costs of legal education. One factor cited by the task force was law school scholarship policies based on high Law School Admis­sion Test scores, instead of financial need. These policies contribute in large part to high levels of law student debt, particularly among first-generation students. Worse yet, they result in the neediest students paying a tuition premium — a “merit surtax,” if you will — that subsidizes the attendance of their wealthier peers.

An analysis of data from the 2014 administration of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement charts how this phenomenon unfolds. The purpose of the analysis was to identify trends relating to the law school experience that were attributable to socioeconomic factors. Those responding to the survey were assigned to groups based on parental education, a common (though imperfect) proxy for socioeconomic status. Respondents whose parents had no more than a high school diploma (first-generation students) made up the “FG” group. Respondents with at least one parent who holds a bachelor’s degree or higher made up the “BA” group.

We found that average LSAT scores increased as parental education increased. Respondents from the FG group had a median score of 153, compared with 157 for the BA group. Differences are ­particularly stark at the highest levels. A score of 160 (about 80th percentile) or above typically affords applicants many law school options. Respondents from the BA group were more than twice as likely as FG respondents to have an LSAT score at this level.

These numbers suggest that respondents with more highly educated parents tended to have an advantage in the admissions process. This is where the merit surtax comes into play. The neediest applicants are doubly disadvantaged. They are least likely to gain admission and, even if admitted, they are least likely to be awarded the most generous scholarships. Student loan debt trends from Law School Survey of Student Engagement support this supposition.

Respondents whose parents had lower levels of education were more likely to have law school debt and more likely to have higher levels of that debt. Respondents from the BA group were almost three times as likely as FG respondents to report that they will have no law school debt upon graduation. On the other hand, 69 percent of FG respondents reported an expectation of more than $80,000 in debt, compared with 51 percent of BA respondents.

Differing levels of reliance on student loans is the result of many factors, including the fact that first-generation students are more likely to come from families of limited resources. But when average LSAT scores are calculated based on parental education and debt level, strong evidence of a merit surtax imposed by law schools emerges.

Expected law school debt was highest among respondents with the lowest LSAT scores whose parents had the least amount of education. Among first-generation respondents who expected to owe more than $120,000, the average LSAT score was 150. Conversely, among respondents who had at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree or higher who expected no law school debt, the average was 158. Expected debt tracked LSAT score and parental education with complete consistency. As parental education and LSAT score decreased, expected debt increased.

The implications of these trends cannot be understated. They foster a system in which those least able to afford law school pay the most — and ­perversely end up subsidizing the attendance of those most able. This merit surtax also has long-term implications. Higher debt levels and varying employment patterns increase the chances that the neediest students will experience difficulty repaying their student loans. A consideration of scholarship policy should be the next frontier of legal education reform. We must consider not only the short-term (and short-­sighted) effects of our scholarship decisions, but also their long-term implications. Rewarding merit, whatever the conception, should not mean saddling the neediest students with the most debt.