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Kaplan Polls Students on the Devil's Dilemma: Ranking or Cost?

By William Peacock, Esq. on July 31, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

What's more important for prospective law students, a school's rank or its cost?

Test-prep company Kaplan's latest pre-law survey tosses out the following hypo: Your mailbox is stuffed with acceptance letters and financial aid offers, three of which are particularly compelling: a top-tier school that is being stingy with scholarship funds, a mid-tier school on a discount, and a free ride (and maybe a pony) if you go to your local lower-tier joint (the legendary third-tier toilet or "TTT").

Prestige or paper? Penny wise or pound foolish? Profit potential with risky debt or a life philosophy of mediocrity?

Going solo out of school? Spend more time developing practice skills and leave the marketing work for the experts.

A Friend Faced a Similar Dilemma...

Why did this dilemma connect with my relatively ancient (Class of 2011) self? Because a friend faced this same choice just a few months ago -- a couple of lower tier schools were offering full rides, while a mid-tier school was offering a partial scholarship.

Obviously, it isn't as simple as "straight cash homie." Nor is it like the old days, where you'd pick the highest-ranked school. There are a lot of factors to consider, such as:

  • Does the school place graduates where you'll someday want to work? (Free school is great until you end up locked into the South Dakota market.)
  • How's your undergraduate debt situation? (Or, how will it be with another three or four years' worth of interest?)
  • Where is your family located? (Puh-leaze. You won't see 'em anyway. STUDY 1L!)
  • Do you have any interest in public interest? (Loan forgiveness!)
  • What's the school's employment outcome picture -- percentages, type of legal practice, etc.? (Bookmark Law School Transparency.)
  • How do the schools check out in person? (Take schools up on recruiting tour offers -- they'll often kick you some gas or flight money.)

In the end, my friend chose the mid-tier school: moderate debt, decent job prospects, and the campus felt like a good fit.

Back to the Survey...

Surveys are swell because the decision is simplified. Gun to their head, how did the respondents respond?

  • 46 percent chose "Mid-Tier, Some Aid."
  • 39 percent chose "Top-Tier, Zero Aid."
  • 16 percent chose "Lower-Tier, Full Aid."

Why? If you look at the soft factors mentioned above, a case can be made for each choice. The mid-tier choice is good for everyone, as you'll probably have decent job prospects (especially in 2017 or so, when you graduate) and only a middling debt load. Top-tier folks have far better job prospects, and let's face it -- BigLaw money makes student debt totals irrelevant.

And lower-tier? Hell, it's a free diploma -- don't look a gift horse in the mouth, even if the horse has two peg legs.

I have to say: I'm a fan of these Kaplan surveys. As a cynical, disillusioned law graduate who's a few years removed from the legal education system, I sometimes wonder if I'm still in touch with the pulse and plight of the student, especially the pre-law student. At least on this survey, I was with the majority, torn between top-tier prestige (T-15? Money ain't a thing!) and mid-tier frugality.

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