Strategic Austerity: How Some Law School Affordability Initiatives Could Actually Improve Learning Outcomes
13 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2013 Last revised: 8 May 2013
Date Written: February 27, 2013
The legal profession is facing profound and perhaps irreversible changes. Whether you view these striking demographics as a “crisis” likely depends on the location of your perch. If you are a tenured professor at a T14 law school or a senior partner at an NLJ 250 firm, you may view the trends we have been discussing today as cyclical corrections. If you are an unemployed graduate looking for work or an untenured professor at a lower-tier school that is struggling to stay afloat, you may be more likely to view these trends as permanent and paradigm shifting.
While applications to American law school have been steadily dropping since 2005, the last three years have seen the most dramatic changes. Between 2010 and 2012, the total number of applicants to U.S. law schools decreased by 25%. This year alone -- 2012-2013 -- the number of applicants dropped another 19%. By 2014, the legal academy may for the first time face an open enrollment situation where the total number of available seats exceeds the number of applicants.
Most law schools have responded to this sharp application decline in one of two ways. Many schools have dramatically reduced their class sizes, which entails foregoing tuition revenue. Lower gross revenue means schools must seek out opportunities to cut costs. Other schools have kept their class sizes relatively stable by offering more scholarship assistance to attract students (essentially increasing their discount rates). This approach too requires expenditure cuts, because absent additional non-tuition sources of funding (such as gifts or endowment) spending more money on scholarships means spending less money on something else.
Law schools cannot make up for this lost revenue by continuing to raise their tuitions at rates that far outpace inflation. A continued upward spiral in tuition threatens to further exacerbate the downward spiral in applications. On average, law school tuition in the United States increased 375% at private law schools and 820% at public law schools between 1985 and 2009. During this 25 year period, law schools on average increased their tuition between 6-15% each year, while inflation averaged only 3%. By way of comparison, tuition for MBA students at our nation’s top management schools increased only 80% in the past decade, an average increase of 4-6% per year. Reining in the law school tuition spiral is critical to restoring consumer confidence in the value of the product we are selling -- especially in a climate where the job prospects for the graduates of some law schools are increasingly bleak.
Legal educators are now engaged in some very difficult and painful conversations about the financial model of legal education. Schools that take an ostrich-like approach to this challenge risk becoming obsolete or irrelevant. What follows are seven proposed changes to the structure of legal education that could simultaneously reduce overall costs to law students, and improve the quality of their education. Quality is not always synonymous with price. With vision and lots of hard work, it may be possible to do more with less.
Three of my proposals will require amendments to ABA accreditation standards. The political and institutional climate now seems ripe to make these reforms. Many ABA accreditation standards are perceived to impede experimentation and innovation in legal education, and to primarily benefit academics (who largely have captured the accreditation process) over students and the practicing bar. The President of the American Bar Association has recently appointed a “Task Force on the Future of Legal Education” that is looking at the structural and economic models of legal education, and the impact of rising tuition and falling employment rates on crushing student debt. The Task Force is soliciting comments and testimony from all sectors of the profession, and some of its members have predicted “bold” and perhaps even “radical” reform. My hope is that several of the proposals presented at today’s symposium will be submitted for consideration by the Task Force in the critical months ahead.
Keywords: legal education
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