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Be careful with tuition waivers.

Be careful? What do you mean be careful? It’s free money! True, but there are few things you should be aware of when accepting money from certain law schools, particularly lowered tiered schools.

Law school, like all of American higher education, is a business. Competition among schools can be fierce. Flaming the fire of law school competition is U.S. News’s annual rankings. Each year, schools attempt to go up in the rankings, so they can attract more students. These students bring prestige and money to the school.

The schools that are battling the hardest to go up in the rankings are usually the third and fourth tier schools. One of their best tools is tuition waivers. Here’s how it works.

Two of the criteria that U.S. News and World report uses to rank schools are students’ LSAT scores and undergrad GPA. Third and fourth tier schools often have low averages in both criteria. So, in order to attract high scorers, these schools offer very lucrative scholarships. An applicant who may have had a high enough score to get into a first or second tier school without any scholarship offers can often get full rides from tier three and four schools. Thus, many financially savvy law students pick the school that, while ranked low, offer them the most money.

Remember, if something is too good to be true, then it probably is. In order to maintain your scholarship, you usually have to maintain a 3.0 gpa while in law school. This doesn’t seem too bad. The problem is that most lower tiered schools have wicked 1st year grading curves. At most, the average grade is a 2.75. That means most students won’t even get a 3.0 average. For example, at my school, only 30% of students will have a 3.0 at the end of their first year. Yikes.

What does this mean to your scholarship? Well, think about it. The law school can afford to offer several well funded scholarships, knowing that only a few of the students will actually keep them because of the curve. So, if you don’t maintain a 3.0 you’re stuck with several problems. First, you can’t transfer to a better school because of your GPA isn’t good enough. Second, you’re stuck picking up the entire bill for tuition. And third, you’re going to have a tough time finding an internship during the summer. How do you explain a bad GPA at a low ranked school?

Does it suck? Well, yes, but it’s an incredibly smart business move. You might be thinking, “Aw, third and Fourth tier students are a bunch of dummies, I can handle it.” I wouldn’t be so sure. Sure, what third and fourth tier students lack in LSAT and GPA, they make up with it in hard work. Also, one thing a friend (who was also offered a huge scholarship from the school) and I have noticed is that almost everyone in our section has really good scholarships. We might be completely paranoid, but we think the school has put all the scholarship students in the same section, so they can weed each other out. It’s like Survivor!

Anyway, just remember if you get offered an awesome scholarship from a lower tiered school to make sure and check what their grading curve is. It might be better to go somewhere else.