Tag Archive for Law School Tuition

The ABA Task Force Recommendations on the Future of Legal Education – Part 1: The Funding Mechanism for Law School

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The American Bar Association’s task force on the future of Legal Education recently released its final report and recommendations. [1]  It appears the findings and recommendations failed to receive the blessing of the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors at the ABA as the report begins with a significant disclaimer stating that the views in the report “should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.”[2]  This post is the first in a four-part series[3] addressing the various assessments and recommendations of the task force and what the recommendations might mean to various persons with interests in legal education. Today’s topic is the pricing and funding mechanisms for law school.

Pricing and Funding of Law School

The task force found that law schools are increasingly listing nominal tuition rates and then seeking top students using a scholarship system.  Many of these internal scholarships, however, are not like most scholarships in the traditional sense where a third party pays the actual cost of tuition to the school on behalf of the scholarship recipient.  A traditional scholarship places the school on equivalent financial footing between scholarship students and non-scholarship students.  Rather, these internal scholarships are really just tuition price reductions for the top incoming students, which actually make some sense as the higher GPA and LSAT scores by these incoming students increases the ranking and prestige of the law school.

This system presents a couple of significant problems.  First, the law schools have to make up the cost of these scholarships and typically do so by charging non-scholarship students more in tuition.  Also, most of the non-scholarship students are financing their legal education with debt from federal loans which are extremely easy to obtain in amounts up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.[4]  So the students with the lowest likelihood of success in law school, meaning students with the weakest incoming predictors like LSAT and GPA, who are also the least likely to benefit from their legal education in monetary terms are the very same students who are paying the most.

The task force also points out that this system for funding law schools “tends to impede the growth of diversity in legal education and in the profession.”[5]  The report makes little mention of diversity either generally or in its more detailed findings and, frankly, I am surprised this statement made it into the report at all without some kind of empirical support.  We are left to speculate as to how the funding mechanism for law schools affects diverse individuals in the legal field any differently than non-diverse individuals.

As interest rates have risen significantly over the last five years, something which is likely correlated to increased unemployment and default rates, the true cost of a law school education over the life of each law student has increased dramatically. One issue that has gotten a great deal of press lately is the fact that student loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  This is a factor that is certainly contributing to declining applications and enrollments for law schools as the financial considerations for engaging in legal studies have pushed many of the brightest students into other career paths.  If a change in ABA policy is able to move law schools to either curtail the cost of law school or develop revenue sources outside the current federal student loan regime then this would certainly improve the economic prospects for students considering law school.  While other funding mechanisms might be available over time, the ABA can immediately implement policies that encourage fiscal responsibility and reduced costs.

Rhode Island’s Law School Significantly Reduces Its Tuition

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It appears law schools are finally starting to react to the significant drops in law school applications[1] by adjusting tuition cost downward.  Roger Williams University School of Law,[2] Rhode Island’s only law school, is reducing its tuition by nearly 20% and locking the tuition at this level for three years.[3]

Considering law schools are in the peak of admissions season, this may be a strategically sound move for a law school to make where the competition for students is increasingly stiff.  It will be interesting to see if the strategy pays off and is reflected in either a stronger, or at least a larger, first year class this upcoming fall compared to the school’s prior 1L class.

One writer has attributed the cuts in tuition, including cuts at other law schools like Penn State and Iowa, to the dismal legal jobs market,[4] but that is only partially true. The primary market trend the law schools are responding to is the downward law school applicant pool.  The law schools themselves have very little, if any, control over the legal market their graduates will inherit. But on thing law schools can control that is affecting demand for legal education is the cost, which has been skyrocketing the last decade or so. This is certainly a step in the right direction and hopefully more law schools will follow suit.