Harvard Law School makes a significant annual investment in ensuring that all students, regardless of means, can afford to attend and take advantage of the opportunities offered by not only a legal education, but a Harvard Law School education. That takes the form of need-based financial aid, which is designed to provide the most support to the students with the greatest need. Harvard Law School is one of only two law schools in the country with a fully need-based financial aid program. This is different from most law schools (and many undergraduate institutions) that administer merit-based financial aid, which can result in the diversion of financial resources towards students from higher-income backgrounds who may need the assistance less. At HLS, we admit students based on their merit and award financial aid based on their need.
Each year, for students with demonstrated need, the school provides grant support in accordance with their income and resources in that particular year, thereby reducing the amount of tuition they are responsible for paying from their personal resources or with loans. This calculation is repeated each year, resulting in the adjustment of their grants by varying amounts over their three years here. When a student has fewer resources in a particular year, the school provides more grant aid. When a student has more resources—such as by having larger summer earnings— the school provides less grant aid. The consequence of these need-based adjustments is to provide higher grant aid to students with the greatest need in a given academic year. Hence, as between two students who otherwise have similarly low resources to fund their legal education, the one earning less receives a higher grant compared to the one earning more.
This year, the maximum amount of tuition a student is asked to pay is $67,720; those receiving the highest available grant assistance, by contrast, pay only $13,020. The average need-based financial aid recipient in the class of 2020 received grant assistance of $24,170 to offset their tuition each year and $75,520 over the course of 3 years.
This reduced cost for students with financial need yields substantial benefits for the students, Harvard Law School, and society. First, it makes it possible for students with the greatest need to attend, ensuring a diversity of experience and voices. Additionally, it results in those students accumulating lower amounts of borrowing than they would otherwise. Second, many students that begin their legal career in the private sector at law firms secure jobs paying an average of $200,000 in the first year after they graduate, enabling them to reasonably pay off their loans in less than the standard 10-year repayment term. This income, coupled with the availability of the Low Income Protection Program for those earning lower salaries (often because they pursued public interest careers), has resulted in a default rate of less than 0.25%, which is considered an excellent indicator of our graduates’ ability to manage repayment. Finally, the legal profession, the United States, and the world benefit from everything our exceptionally talented students do both while they are in law school (including serving low-income clients in legal clinics and student practice organizations) and as lawyers after they graduate.
Harvard Law School is proud of the strong financial support it offers to students from lower-income backgrounds. The school also regularly examines and adjusts its need-based financial aid policy to address new challenges that our students and graduates may be encountering.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are student resources and why does HLS take summer earnings into account?
Each year, the determination of a student’s need, and thus the amount of grant assistance provided, is based on the student’s total available resources in that particular year. This calculation is repeated for each student each year, and accordingly adjusted over the student’s years at HLS to reflect the student’s actual need during the year under consideration. These annual determinations ensure that, in each year, the students with the highest need receive the largest grants; at the same time, those whose needs are not as high receive more modest grants. The greatest beneficiaries are our first-year high-need students and those second and third year high-need students who pursue public interest positions over the summer that typically pay a small fraction of the amount paid by large law firms. Students taking high-paying summer positions therefore receive grants that are neither as high as those taking low-paying positions nor as high as the grants they may have received in a previous year when their summer earnings were much lower.
A key factor unique to law students is the opportunity to earn significant income during the summer; sometimes upwards of $36,000. This is an opportunity few had the summer before they started law school and it is a level of income not received by those in public service positions over the summer. In our need-based system, those with high summer earnings will receive less generous grants than those with much lower summer earnings. Regardless, students receiving need-based financial aid continue to pay less overall during their three years at HLS than do many other students.
Why do you adjust the amount of grant aid you provide in response to summer earnings?
Every year, we provide grant aid to offset the amount of tuition high-need students are required to pay from their personal resources, in accordance with their income and other resources that year. Summer earnings are regarded to be like any other source of income. Students who earn less in a given summer have greater need, so their grant aid is correspondingly higher. In order to give higher grants to those who earn less and have greater need, grants to those who earn more are necessarily lower by comparison. This combination shifts grant funds to students with greater need in that year, enabling us to always provide the most support to the students with the greatest need.
Why don’t you exclude summer earnings from your calculations?
A fundamental principle of need-based aid is that we provide students with grants to reduce their tuition costs based on their financial need. Need is higher in a given year when students’ available resources are lower in that year. Students with the lowest summer earnings—typically entering students who did not have high-paying summer job opportunities before arriving and current students taking public service summer jobs—have the greatest need and hence receive the largest grants, for a given level of other resources. This would not occur, which is to say that the grants for the highest-need students would be lower, if we ignored summer earnings. Conversely, students with the highest summer earnings—typically those taking summer jobs at large law firms—have lesser need and hence receive more modest grants. In that way, we focus our financial aid resources each year on students with the greatest need.
How does the amount of support that Harvard provides its lower-income students compare to that offered by other law schools?
HLS’s financial aid program is among the most generous of any law school in the country. No other law school surpasses the financial support we offer lower-income students. And while the resources we can deploy are finite, we have continued to expand our financial aid program in recent years to further assist students with the greatest need. We also offer an unusually generous loan repayment assistance program, the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP), so that graduates who forgo extremely high-paying law firm opportunities, often to pursue public service careers, receive assistance in paying off their law school loans, up to full payment.
How does the student resources aspect of Harvard’s need-based financial aid policy help lower-income students?
Ensuring that we are always providing the most support to students with the highest need helps keep Harvard Law School affordable for the largest number of students. Summer earnings are a resource just as is any form of earnings. Students in high-paying summer jobs have, as a consequence, less need than students in lower-paying ones, including most of our incoming students. Our student resources policy accordingly provides more modest assistance to the former group, thereby shifting significant additional resources to the latter group. The bottom line is that this approach maximizes the grants that can be given to students with the very highest needs.