Lowering Tuition

April 6th, 2013 / By

The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law is reducing tuition for in-state residents by eleven percent. Non-residents are receiving an eight percent decrease. The Board of Trustees unanimously approved both reductions on Thursday. What does the reduction mean for Arizona and other law schools?

I welcome the tuition reduction, as I’m sure current and prospective students do. Arizona’s cost-cutting is just a small step in rolling back the steep rise in law school tuition, but it’s a worthwhile one. Arizona residents will pay $3,000 less per year for their legal education, while non-residents will pay $3,500 less. If students are borrowing that money, as most do, they will also save interest that accumulates at high rates. A non-resident who is borrowing money to attend the University of Arizona’s law school will save about $12,350 in tuition and interest over three years.

On the other hand, even a savings of $12,500 is relatively small given the overall cost of legal education. The University of Arizona estimates its current cost of attendance as $50,295 a year for residents and $65,306 for nonresidents. That’s a hefty $150,885 to $195,918 for three years. Cutting out $9,000 to $12,500 helps, but it’s a minor assist. As Brian Tamanaha commented, the reduction is not nearly enough to “align cost and economic return for the majority of students.”

The reduction, however, does have two other effects. First, it will help other schools gauge reactions to tuition cuts. Will prospective students respect Arizona’s move as one that, in addition to conveying modest financial benefit, signals a commitment to student interests? Will Arizona attract more and better students through its tuition reduction? Will alumni, employers, and the public similarly applaud Arizona’s attempt to rein in costs?

Or will these audiences see the reduction as a fire sale, suggesting desperation and cheapening Arizona’s reputation? Legal educators have speculated about the latter attitude during the last few years. Arizona’s decision will help test whether this is a realistic fear–or simply one of self interest in resisting tuition reductions.

Second, Arizona’s action represents a small step away from merit scholarships. The school has announced that it will pay for its tuition cuts partly by reducing scholarship awards. Some prospective students (those who would have received high scholarships) thus may pay more with the tuition “cut” than they would have under the status quo. Students who would not have received scholarships, however, will pay less. Overall, the program will ease the “reverse robin hood” effect that many have criticized in today’s law school admissions process. Students with lower LSAT scores may still subsidize higher scoring classmates at the University of Arizona, but the subsidy won’t be quite as large as it was before–or as it may be at other schools.

How will other schools respond to this step toward tuition equity? Many law faculty dislike the current scholarship system, which encourages the purchase of LSAT scores and GPAs to bolster US News rankings. Yet schools have resisted change, worrying that individual action would lead to a lower rank.

With this tuition reduction, Arizona seems willing to risk that step. Will Arizona’s bravery demonstrate that lower tuition, combined with lower scholarships, is possible without losing rank? If Arizona does suffer in the rankings game, will the school adhere to its policy–showing other schools that pedagogic mission sometimes must trump rank? Surely we would all be better off choosing students and awarding financial aid with less obsessive attention to LSAT scores. Either way, I await further reactions to Arizona’s move.

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Deluged by Debt

March 13th, 2013 / By

As Brian Tamanaha writes at Balkinization, law school debt levels continue their relentless climb. The latest figures from US News show that, among 2012 graduates, the average amount borrowed for law school exceeded $150,000 at six law schools. Only one of those schools (Northwestern) ranks among the top fifteen law schools; one other (American) ranks 56th. The other four (Thomas Jefferson, California Western, Phoenix, and New York Law School) lie in the unranked fourth tier.

As Brian’s post shows, the job outcomes at five of these schools (all but Northwestern) are dismal. Less than 40% of the students at these schools obtained full-time jobs that required bar admission and would last at least one year. Even at Northwestern, only 77% of the class met that mark. How can all of the graduates with part-time, temporary, or non-lawyering jobs possibly pay off more than $150,000 in debt–plus all of the accrued interest on that debt? What calculations can justify attending most law schools at that debt-to-outcome ratio?

The problem, of course, reaches far beyond these six schools. They are at the top of the debt ladder, but most other law schools are close behind. 123 law schools, well over half of the 193 listed schools, reported average amounts borrowed that exceeded $100,000. Even Irvine law school’s first graduates, who paid no tuition for their three years of law school, reported debt. More than two-thirds (68%) of Irvine’s initial class incurred debt, borrowing an average of $49,602 for their “free” law school ride. Remarkably, that figure gave Irvine the second lowest average debt load among the 193 law schools.

When students borrow almost $50,000 to attend law school, even without paying tuition, we have to re-think the way we structure legal education.

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