Pennsylvania State’s Dickinson School of Law announced yesterday (Nov. 26) that it will offer the Class of 2014 half-off tuition for three years—without actually cutting tuition.
Right now, tuition is $41,088 for in-state students, but each Pennsylvania resident entering in the fall of 2014 will be eligible for a $20,000 grant, renewable for three years. The grant will effectively bring Penn State’s alarmingly high in-state tuition down to $21,088—slightly lower than $23,590, the average tuition for in-state public law school students in 2012. Students who receive the grant will still be eligible for scholarships and other forms of financial aid.
Though the grant is undoubtedly generous, there are no immediate plans to keep it going. When asked whether later classes might benefit from such grants, Penn State representative Ellen Foreman gave a curt response: “This is offered for the class entering in 2014 and is renewable for three years. That’s our focus for now.” Could it result in a tuition reduction later down the line? “It effectively does lower tuition for those PA residents who are admitted and attend,” Foreman says. Still, she explains that Penn State is already planning for an even bigger change. “Our two campuses may be separately accredited in 2014, and that’s why the focus for the unified program, as we are currently accredited, is for 2014 admissions,” she says.
The grant comes after sharp declines in Penn State’s enrollment. At 132 students, this year’s first-year enrollment is 17.5% lower than it was last year, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But while Penn State is suffering more than many other schools, it’s far from alone: The National Law Journal found that first-year applications for the fall have fallen by about 12% nationwide.
Law schools tend to respond in one of two ways: cutting tuition or cutting class sizes. Karen Sloan, who writes for The National Law Journal, predicts that the former option will become more popular. “This is something we have seen more of over the past nine months,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And if you read the tea leaves based on the most recent administration of the LSAT, I think we will see more announcements of tuition reductions.” (The number of students who took the LSAT in October was the lowest since 1998.)
Penn State is choosing a compromise of sorts. The school hopes that making the program more affordable—however temporarily—will boost enrollment. “We have a superb academic program with some of the nation’s finest classroom teachers and experiential learning opportunities,” Interim Dean James W. Houck said in a press release. “Yet our research shows that some individuals are unable to take advantage of it because of cost. This program will increase access to legal education for well-qualified Pennsylvania residents who otherwise may not have considered us.”
Price certainly matters, but it’s possible that a very different number is scaring off potential applicants. Penn State emphasizes that of all the Pennsylvania schools, it had the highest first-time bar passage rate on this year’s July exam. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the employment rate: Only 24.6% of the Class of 2011 had a job at graduation. At least members of the incoming class will have less debt.
This article was updated on Dec. 2, 2013.