Yale Law says it will cover tuition for low-income students

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A student walks on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut November 12, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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  • New program to provide full-tuition scholarships to as many as 50 law students
  • Effort funded in part by a $20 million donation

(Reuters) - Yale Law School plans to wipe out tuition for low-income students starting in the fall, which its dean hopes will spark a wider move toward need-based financial aid in legal education.

For the next three years, the school will provide full-tuition scholarships for 45 to 50 students in its J.D. program whose family income falls below the federal poverty line (currently $27,750 in annual income) and whose assets are below $150,000.

That means about 9% of the class will automatically qualify for annual scholarships worth more than $70,000.

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The endowed program, which the school aims to grow over time, will apply to current first- and second-year students as well as the new class that starts in the fall.

“I want to provide as much support as we can to our highest need students,” said Yale Law Dean Heather Gerken in an interview Tuesday. “For students who come from below the poverty line, I want to be able to free them from the need to pay any tuition at all.”

Yale Law, which is No. 1 in the closely watched U.S. News & World Report law school rankings, has focused on diversifying its student body.

Since 2016, Yale says it has admitted six of its most diverse law classes on record and approximately one in six of its current first-year students are the first in their families to graduate from college.

According to Yale, it and Harvard are the only law schools that award financial aid based only on financial need.

Most schools focus on “merit” scholarships, which they use to bring in applicants with high Law School Admission Test scores and undergraduate grade-point averages. Those high scores help boost a school’s U.S. News ranking.

Yale already provides financial aid to about three-quarters of its students, but the new scholarship will be the first to cover all tuition. It doesn't include living expenses, which the school estimates to be about $21,000 per year.

The program is funded in part through a combination of private donations. Yale Law alumna Soledad Hurst and her husband, Robert, a former vice chairman at Goldman Sachs, made a founding donation of $20 million. Additional funding comes from David and Patricia Nierenberg and Gene and Carol Ludwig.

Gerken said she hopes the new program will prompt other law schools to allocate more funding to need-based scholarships and move away from merit-based financial aid.

"I’m really hoping everyone follows us on this," she said.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com