With undergrad, and with law school, it is important to recognize the difference between need based and merit based aid. “Financial aid” often gets used to refer to both need-based aid and merit based aid. Families whose financial situation does not qualify them for need-based aid may hear stories about kids getting “full rides” or “full tuition” awards and think their kid will get the same. However, if someone knew the details of that “full ride” award, it turns out to be need-based aid which that full-pay family is not eligible for. Many of us parents try to alert families and students going through the application process for the first time to educate themselves on those distinctions, and to use the NPC, to get a clearer sense of finances.
Law school applicants are often trying to decide between significant indebtedness from higher ranked schools, with broader career opportunities, vs. lower debt/more merit from lower ranked schools, with corresponding narrower career opportunities. For instance, for a career in “big law” – major law firms handling complex litigation and deals – top firms may interview broadly at, say, the T14 schools, but have specific gpa and class rank cut-offs for applicants from other schools. Everyone thinks they will be at the top of the law school class because they’v always been in the top of their high school and college class. But everyone else in law school is coming from the same success and, with mandatory curves, only about 10% of all those high achieving students will get A range grades in law school. So that calculus about risk/reward for indebtedness is tricky.
Finally, in terms of the details of a financial aid award, law schools don’t necessarily distinguish between whether the “award” is need or merit based. Since Harvard, Yale and Stanford Law Schools don’t do merit awards, those are the only schools where you can be sure there is no merit mixed in to the finances. Everyone else does give merit awards, which are used to get high stat students to attend and thereby ensure the school’s ranking – which is heavily based on median gpa and LSAT of attending students. Law school admissions, and merit awards, is very data driven and there are lots of predictors available which will show what students with specific gpa and LSAT were admitted and how much merit award.
A very (very) long way of saying, for a junior, this is the time to get a handle on finances, particularly as many “upper middle class” families are shocked to discover what their Expected Family Contribution is. We certainly were, which led to our kids having to “follow the money” for their own college decisions. One went to UW, which was about $20k less per year in tuition than a private university, and the other only applied to LACs where he could get at least 1/2 tuition merit award. Good luck, I’m sure you will have some great options to choose from!