Last week, I blogged about the fact that most law schools have become "more affordable" in the last three years, at least as measured by indebtedness at graduation. There are many possible explanations for the reduction in debt, and they may well be measured in non-"affordability" terms, such as increasing numbers of independently wealthy students self-funding their education. But I suggested changes to law school scholarships may be driving some of the affordability, and there's strong evidence that's the case.
While law schools have been raising their tuition, often quicker than inflation (with some notable exceptions I mentioned in last week's piece), they may well be increasing scholarship awards at an even faster pace. Some of the macro-level details of the scholarship award picture remain murky, but from law school disclosures offered by the American Bar Association, we can get some idea about the overall scholarship or grant picture.
Law schools are required to disclose the total scholarship picture of its students annually. That means changes to scholarship awards in the incoming first-year class are just one part of the total law school portrait. But there's a strong suggestion in these figures that each incoming class is receiving significantly more than the previous class.
The figures below include all schools from reporting years 2012 to 2016, which reference academic years 2011 to 2015. Schools that lacked data for a period in here (including schools that merged or divided) were excluded.
Despite the significant decline in enrollment in law schools in the last several years, the raw number of students receiving grants has actually increased. Total law school enrollment declined from 141,217 among these schools to 109,412, largely the result of much smaller incoming classes succeeding much larger graduating classes. Despite this, the total students receiving grants actually increased, from 70,403 to 73,323. And the total coming in with no grants plummeted, from 70,815 to 36,089 in this five-year stretch.
Those raw numbers translate into notable percentages. The number of law school enrollees receiving an academic scholarship has increased fairly significantly in just a few years, from just under 50% to about two-thirds of all law students.
(I had thought one possible reason would be a decline in conditional scholarships, or grants that are contingent on a law student performing at a certain academic level in the first year in order to secure the award in the second and third years. This has declined slightly but not meaningfully in the last few years, hardly worth mentioning.)
The awards appear to be increasing, too. The percentage of law school enrollees receiving at least half tuition have increased from 16% of enrollees to over 27% of enrollees. (Recall that this probably understates what's happening in each new incoming class, as these scholarship figures are the total picture as opposed to just the incoming class statistics. It might be the case that schools have been increasing tuition and subsequently increasing scholarship amounts as well, but that's something best left for more extensive analysis later.)
Indeed, while students receiving less than half tuition scholarships continue to be the bulk of scholarship recipients, students with half to full tuition scholarships remain the fastest-growing group. (Even full tuition and more than full tuition awards increased over this time: more than 2% of law students are now enrolled on more than full tuition scholarships.)
While there are undoubtedly many factors contributing to the decline in law school debt (and law school affordability), the increase in scholarships appears to be a major source of this change.