American University College of Law and Its Hostage Scholarship

By  | 

It’s pretty well known at this point that the law school industry is struggling. With overall enrollment down, many schools are taking drastic measures to make sure that they keep their numbers up. Some schools are doing this by lowering prices, and others are creating innovative new programs to attract students. And then you have the American University Washington College of Law, which is offering students a scholarship…and then making them pay if they don’t follow through on the terms of the scholarship.

American Law offers a scholarship called the Public Interest/Public Service Scholarship. The students who receive it are colloquially referred to as PIPS Scholars. The PIPS scholarship covers the full price of tuition and requires certain involvement in public service-based events and activities in order to remain in the program. For example, PIPS Scholars participate in the school’s Pro Bono Honors Pledge Program, and organize a Public Service Day for younger students. There are also academic standards that must be maintained. Overall, the program seems pretty rigorous, but also valuable, given that full-cost law school scholarships are pretty hard to come by.

But there’s apparently a catch, and that’s this stipulation:

Scholars will be expected to maintain matriculation at the Washington College of Law until graduation. Absent compelling circumstances, a scholar who chooses to withdraw or transfer from the law school will be required to pay back the full amount of tuition within 30 days of the end of the last semester of enrollment plus any other WCL grants or scholarships. As a condition of receiving the scholarship, incoming PIPS Scholars will be asked to sign a form indicating their understanding and acceptance of the foregoing terms and conditions of the award.

So if a PIPS Scholar doesn’t stay at American for all three years of legal education, she owes American Law repayment of that free tuition? American Law puts its current full-time tuition at $49,542.

As Paul Campos points out, this policy has undergone some changes over the years. Originally when the program was created in 2001, there did not appear to be any sort of repayment requirements. Between 2006 – 2014, PIPS Scholars who dropped out or transferred could convert their debt to American Law into a loan and pay it back that way. Now, it appears that students who don’t complete the requisite three years must pay back the full amount in 30 days.

It’s a pretty tough bargain that American Law is driving with this scholarship. To be fair, the students who enter this program do accept the terms and conditions, and apparently sign some sort of contract. I hope that those students are giving that document a good read-over, but given that they are entering law school on a full ride, it’s probably pretty safe to assume they are indeed being thorough. Obviously, a student who thinks he might want to transfer, or a student who isn’t 100 percent sure that law school is the right path should not accept this scholarship.

I do worry, though, about students who have to drop out of school for unforeseen reasons — health, family emergency, personal crises, and the like. Sometimes those things just happen, and the fact that American Law will penalize students for those reasons is pretty tough. Although the scholarship does say that the price will be charged “absent compelling circumstances,” there doesn’t appear to be a definition in the scholarship requirements of what compelling circumstances might be. Is it decided on an ad-hoc basis, or does American Law list some examples of what is a good enough reason to drop out? The potentially arbitrary nature of this sentence is deeply concerning.

I think it’s also important to note that American Law must know that if a student drops out, he’s probably not going to do a great job of paying the school back. Any attempts to reclaim the money, especially as much money as American Law charges a year, is probably going to drive that student into bankruptcy. Instead, this serves as more of an insurance policy than anything else — the threat of America Law’s possible actions are pretty much enough to keep students from transferring or otherwise leaving.

It’s an interesting move, American Law. In a environment where law schools are trying new strategies to stay ahead of the pack, let’s see how hostage-taking in the form of a “scholarship” works for you.


Anneliese Mahoney (@AMahoney8672) is Lead Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at

Featured image courtesy of [ via Flickr]

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



Send this to friend