Ich Bin Ein U.S. Newser

by Vault Education Editors | October 29, 2009

  • My Vault

There are a few great evils in this world. And for law schools, the students who attend them, and journalists and bloggers who write about them, U.S. News is one. U.S. News is the Bernie Madoff of legal education.

On Monday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released the results of its study, "Issues Related to Law School Cost and Access." The study examined why law school tuition and costs have increased at a higher rate than other professional schools (in this case, medical and dentistry schools). The answer? U.S. News made them do it! U.S. News is the reason for all your law school student loans!

According to the GAO report, law school officials blamed increased tuition on the spending required to "compete to attract students and faculty and to increase their U.S. News and World Report ranking. This competition has had an impact on cost because: Rankings are determined in part by such cost-related factors as per student expenditures, student-faculty ratio and library resources. According to law school officials, schools offer clinics and diverse elective courses to compete for students. To attract the best faculty, school officials reported that they may offer higher salaries." In other words, they spent money on better classes and class selection, high-touch student-professor interaction, student resources and resume-boosting extracurriculars ... and this is bad because ...?

All right, so maybe their hearts weren't in the right place. But so what? Though law schools may seek to boost their U.S. News ranking by taking a "hands-on, resource-intensive approach," a higher tier isn't the only benefit. Investing in more course offerings, more clinical offerings, smaller classes and more academic support for students doesn't sound like an entire waste of funds to me. On the contrary, it sounds like law schools are trying to create an enriching environment in which students are more likely to succeed. Fading are the days of torn-out textbook pages and Paper Chase-style zero sum competition. And good riddance. Students may be paying up for prestige, but they're also paying up for their sanity and a more enjoyable education to boot. Even though the motivation for the increased spending on students may have been tainted by the school’s social climbing ambitions, that increase is ultimately a good thing.

It is true that, since 1994, law school tuition has increased slightly faster than medical or dentistry school (by 1.9 and 0.2 percent, respectively) and also outpaced the percentage of costs covered by federal loans. But before you pick up your pitchfork and join the mob of bloggers out to tar and feather U.S. News, remember that although the students suffer the financial burden, they also enjoy the benefits. In a press release in March of 2004, Boston College Law School's spokesperson Jack Dunn explained the school's 6.1 percent tuition increase: "It is necessary to attract and retain the nation's best faculty, to provide students with the latest technology in their classrooms, and to help fulfill our commitment to having the best facilities and programs for the sake of our students." Better teachers, better technology, better facilities--check. While it was a large increase, the law schools also spent more money on scholarships, financial aid and its loan repayment assistance program that year. In particular, BC Law's LRAP reached $250,000, its highest amount ever, in 2007, and the 1Ls of 2004 were the recipients.

We were (and still are) in a tuition "bubble," caused by a number of different factors: Accreditation (law school officials told GAO that ABA accreditation is a "minor factor," but it is a factor all the same), decreased state funding, costs of updating technology and expanding facilities, increased spending on scholarships and other programs, and more have contributed to the spike in law school tuition in the past five years. More competition for rankings is only one piece of the puzzle.

Now, I'm not letting U.S. News off the hook, nor am I saying that their influence over law school administrators necessarily leads to a better legal education. Pursuing a high ranking comes at a cost, and the efforts schools make to achieve a top spot can hurt students, as was the case at Clemson University. However, the GAO report was not the end of the law school tuition conversation, as blogs like Above the Law, ABA Journal, The Shark, The Chronicle in Higher Education and TaxProf Blog imply, but the beginning.

Filed Under: Education

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