“At the end of the day, we’re in the business here,” says George Mason Law School Dean Dan Polsby. “We have supply, we have demand. That’s what we have. And we have a very, very perishable product.” The product he’s referring to is a seat in the law school class. On December 11, George Mason University’s Board of Visitors elected to keep the price of that seat stable by freezing tuition for the coming year. It intends to continue the freeze through 2016-2017.
Enrollment has been down in law schools all over the country, and George Mason is no exception: In 2012, the entering class was about half the size of the entering class of 2010 (the other option was relaxing admissions standards). Polsby hopes the freeze—which applies to both current and incoming students—will increase the number of applicants. “I need to be able to fill some more seats,” he says, likening a law school with empty spots to a vacant airplane. “I’m taking the plane off anyway.”
Polsby says the need to curb tuition became clear to him as early as 2009. “Breaking through the clutter and getting the focus of decision-makers is not something that happens overnight,” he says, especially at a large university like George Mason.
With some law schools offering applicants time-sensitive scholarships, freezing tuition stands out as a levelheaded response to flagging enrollment. Polsby doesn’t see George Mason using gimmicky tactics anytime soon. “Just speaking personally here, I don’t like that,” he says. “I think people need to decide that they want to be lawyers in a sober frame of mind.” In his view, if he wants students to maintain a relationship with the school for the remainder of their careers, it doesn’t make sense to have them start off with a bad taste in their mouths. Plus, the freeze makes economic sense for the school—that’s the hope, anyway. “It remains to be seen because the whole theory here is that by freezing tuition, we’ll be increasing demand for the product,” Polsby says.
More demand means more law students, though. Since it’s been so hard for new law grads to find jobs, does Polsby think law schools have a responsibility to help reduce the number of lawyers in the market? Not quite. “We’re not allowed to collaborate with each other,” he says. “We can’t restrict supply like that.” He maintains that the responsibility still lies with the applicants themselves. “It’s something that has to be approached in a businesslike spirit,” he says—getting a J.D. and simply hoping things will all work out “is so 1970s.” “I would look at the odds before I bought that particular ticket,” he adds. At George Mason, 49% of the class were employed at graduation; 78% were employed nine months later.
Still, even with a solid understanding of the odds, Polsby doesn’t think lawyers will become unimportant anytime soon. “This is our world, and it’s becoming increasingly more technical,” he says. “The reality is, a lot of people do, in fact, need a legal counselor for various aspects of their lives, and to have a bright and adequately trained lawyer available to accept those kinds of assignments is very important for the world in which we live.” He cautions, however, that law is a path to wealth for only a tiny minority. “There are many more people that would like that deal than could possibly get it,” he says.
And since law schools can’t set lawyers’ compensation—“I’m not advocating that there be a central bureau of any kind that decides how much lawyers get paid,” Polsby says emphatically—they can at least do their best to make their prices realistic. It’s the way to keep law schools running in the long term. “That’s my world, and the world of 200 other law deans in the country,” Polsby concludes.