Law School Application Fee Waivers: Part 3 (Need-Based Fee Waivers)

Note: This blog post has been updated to reflect changes that LSAC made to their need-based fee waiver program ahead of the 2021-22 application cycle.

This is Part 3 of our series on law school application fee waivers. Part 1 is about unsolicited fee waivers that applicants can receive through LSAC’s Candidate Referral Service (CRS). Part 2 is about asking a law school for an application fee waiver. Part 3 covers need-based fee waivers.

To recap from Parts 1 and 2: as of 2018 a little more than half of the then-203 accredited law schools charged an application fee, usually $50-$90. Some schools may waive their application fee on the basis of “merit,” which usually involves a strong LSAT and GPA combination and maybe some other desirable characteristics, too. Many schools use an LSAC database called CRS to automatically identify candidates for fee waivers or, in some cases, applicants can ask for a fee waiver by emailing the school directly. If you don’t qualify for a fee waiver based on merit, then you might be able to ask for a fee waiver based on financial need.

Note, in Parts 1 and 2, we stressed that merit-based fee waivers were only for the law school’s application fee and didn’t cover fees charged by LSAC. Well, on a need basis, it is possible to get LSAC to waive their fees, too, and we’ll explain how that works in this post.

LSAC’s need-based fee waiver

LSAC updated their need-based fee waiver program for the 2021-22 application cycle, but it is still the best thing going because it includes so much. The catch is that it is hard to qualify. Still, the recent changes make the criteria for qualification more transparent, and that is certainly a good thing. Most 2021-22 applicants will pay $395 for the LSAT and Credential Assembly Service (CAS) registration, plus $45 for each Law School Report. Add to that amount another $200 if they sit for the LSAT a second time and $50-$90 in application fees charged by each law school, and the average applicant is well over $1,000 before they even see their first tuition bill.

LSAC’s need-based fee waiver can covers a huge portion of those costs, but with the new program the benefits are split into two tiers.

Tier 1 includes: up to 2 LSATs, 1 LSAT Writing, CAS Registration, and 6 Law School Reports. Tier 1 also includes a subscription to LSAT Prep Plus (usually $99/year) and Score Preview — the option to see your LSAT score and decide to cancel (usually $45-$75). Additionally, many law schools will automatically waive their own application fees for LSAC fee waiver recipients, so all of the sudden an LSAC fee waiver recipient can go from over $1,000 to apply to law school to maybe $0, depending on the number of schools to which they apply.

Tier 2 includes a little bit less: only 1 LSAT and 3 Law School Reports. Tier 2 still includes 1 LSAT Writing, CAS Registration, LSAT Prep Plus, and Score Preview, the same as in Tier 1. A Tier 2 candidate is less likely to have no cost for their application process because the average law school applicant submits more than 3 applications, so they will have to pay $45 for each additional Law School Report. We still expect that law schools who will waive their application fees for Tier 1 fee waiver recipients will do the same for Tier 2 fee waiver recipients.

So how do you qualify for these fee waivers? First, LSAC’s fee waiver is only available for U.S., Canadian, and Australian citizens, permanent residents, DACA recipients, and a couple of other resident categories. Most international applicants are excluded.

Next, you have to have low income and assets. How low? That depends on whether you are financially independent from your parents and how much money you earn.

The primary consideration for determining an independent candidate is age. The application form asks whether you were born before January 1, 1998. If so, you are independent. There are also criteria for married candidates, candidates with dependents, and candidates whose parents are both deceased.

An Independent Candidate can earn a Tier 1 fee waiver if their income is less than 250% of the federal poverty level. Assuming that LSAC is using the federal poverty guidelines that are applicable for the lower 48 United States and Washington, D.C., for a single-person household that number is $32,200 for 2021.

An independent candidate can earn a Tier 2 fee waiver if their income is between 250% and 300% of the federal poverty guidelines. Using the same assumptions, that increases the threshold for a Tier 2 fee waiver to $38,640. If the candidate claims dependents, then that number will be greater. (The requirements for Canadian and Australian candidates are similar.)

A Dependent Candidate can only earn a Tier 1 fee waiver (no option for a Tier 2), and there are two possible calculations to use. The first calculation is whether the candidate’s own income is less than 150% of the federal poverty rate. Again, assuming a single-person household in the lower 48 or Washington, D.C., that number is $19,320 for 2021. If the dependent candidate does not qualify under that calculation, then they may still qualify if their combined family income is less than 300% of the federal poverty level. That number varies depending on family size. For a family of four, the threshold is $79,500. You can look up the numbers for your specific family size on the Department of Health and Human Services website.

Note that LSAC says that they will consider exceptional circumstances on a case-by-case basis. Note also that LSAC’s fee waiver application form requires some disclosures about assets and cash balances in bank accounts, so if you are in a position with low income but high assets, then you may not qualify for a fee waiver.

If think that you may qualify, then you should absolutely apply for LSAC’s fee waiver. If you don’t qualify, then read on, because you may still be able to apply directly to law schools for a need-based waiver of the law school’s application fee.

Law Schools’ need-based fee waivers

Not every law school offers their own need-based fee waiver. Many simply direct applicants to apply for LSAC’s fee waiver program and only offer fee waivers for candidates who also qualify for LSAC’s program. The good news is that if the law school administers their own need-based fee waiver program then they are likely doing so because they have somewhat looser requirements than LSAC. That’s not saying much since LSAC has such stringent requirements to qualify for a fee waiver, but at least it is something. Law schools’ qualification criteria for need-based fee waivers are typically opaque and may change from year to year, so the only way to find out whether you will qualify is to go through the process of applying.

In most cases, you will need to email the admissions office to ask them for their need-based application fee waiver form. They probably won’t start processing need-based fee waiver requests until September 1 or whenever their application goes live, so if you are reading this over the summer, then you likely have to wait. At the appropriate time, you can use an email like the sample below to inquire about need-based fee waivers:

Subject: Need-Based Application Fee Waiver?

Good afternoon,

I am interested in applying to [X Law School], but the cost of the application fee is a financial burden. Does the admissions office offer need-based application fee waivers? If so, would you please send me the instructions for how to apply? Thanks in advance.

Applicant Name

How much need do I need?

Need calculations are highly variable from school to school. If you are a recent graduate with an entry-level job that is relatively low-paying but perhaps slightly above LSAC’s thresholds, then it might be worth it to apply for a school’s need-based fee waiver. Sometimes law schools have developed their own specific criteria that are just different from the questions that LSAC is asking.

I’m actually doing pretty well with my finances, but I’d still prefer not to have to pay application fees. Should I apply for a need-based fee waiver?

There are a few instances that I’m willing to say categorically disqualify you from a need-based fee waiver:

  • You have a six-figure salary. It doesn’t matter whether you live in a high cost of living city like San Francisco or Tokyo. If you are making more than $100,000, then you make at least twice as much as the administrative assistant who is processing your need-based fee waiver request, and we don’t know of any law school that grants need-based waivers at this high an income level.
  • You don’t have a high salary, but your spouse does. Every need-based fee waiver application that I have seen asks for information about spousal income. (But, many do not ask any questions about parental income.)
  • You own substantial assets. Like a house. Not every need-based application form asks detailed questions about assets, but the admissions office is going to assume that if you can pull together the money for a down payment, then you can find $75 for an application fee.
  • You leave inconvenient questions blank. If all you do is write your name and email address on the need-based fee waiver application and decline to provide detailed information about your income or assets, then the admissions office is just going to send it back to you to redo. If you are lucky. More likely, they will deny your request because you didn’t follow instructions and fill out the form completely.

There you have it! The three ways to apply for an application fee waiver from law schools: unsolicited merit-based fee waivers through CRS, solicited merit-based fee waivers, and need-based fee waivers.

Written by Joe Pollak, Spivey Consulting Group admissions consultant and former admissions officer at the University of Michigan Law School.