The affordability of a law degree continues to be an issue. Student debt, largely caused by tuition costs, continues to soar and in some cases are getting ridiculous. What’s more, projections of future tuition amounts are terrifying. What do recent law school grads and prospective 1Ls think about this? Kaplan conducted a survey to find out. According to the results, which were released yesterday (May 11), recent law school graduates would enact big changes to legal education to reduce costs of tuition. Meanwhile, prospective 1Ls are more hesitant to make those same changes.
Kaplan surveyed 293 recent graduates and 819 pre-law students on five ways to reduce law school tuition. More than half (56 percent) of recent law school graduates would cut law school from three years to two while only 34 percent of pre-law students would do the same. The other proposed ideas to reduce tuition costs were online courses, “flat” tuition, enrolling more students, and reducing professor salaries.
The biggest disagreement from the two groups was if law schools should adopt more online courses. Only 13 percent of pre-law students thought offering legal education in an online format and reducing the amount spent on real estate was a good idea. However, 39 percent of recent grads think it’s an idea that should be adopted.
MORE THAN A QUARTER THINK PROFESSORS SHOULD BE PAID LESS
Interestingly, 27 percent of recent graduates believed professor salaries should be reduced while just 7 percent of prospective 1Ls felt the same. Former and prospective students came closest to agreement over “flat” tuition, which was defined as schools ridding of all merit-based scholarships and then using the money to reduce tuition for everyone. For that category, 29 percent of recent graduates thought it was a good idea compared to 17 percent of prospective students.
Not surprisingly, 14 percent of recent graduates thought schools should enroll more students to offset costs while nearly double (27 percent) of prospective students thought the same.
“Having been through the grinder for the past three years, it’s not too surprising that law school graduates want to see the law school experience reduced from three years to two years,” said Jeff Thomas, executive director of pre-law programs, Kaplan Test Prep in a prepared statement.
LAW SCHOOLS LARGELY SLOW TO CHANGE
Indeed, some schools have already made changes. Earlier this year, the American Bar Association approved the William Mitchell College of Law (which previously merged with Hamline University School of Law) hybrid-learning program in which students spend half of their class time off campus.
Numerous two-year degree programs have popped up across the country. However, since most law schools charge by the credit hour and these programs require the same amount of credits to graduate, the tuition cost remains the same. Graduates may get into the job market quicker, but carry the same debt burden. What’s more, employers seem to have mixed feelings about the accelerated degree and it usually comes at the cost of those ever-important internships.
Still, change is slow. “While change is coming in both areas (accelerated and online programs), straying from the ways things have been normally done in legal education is generally slow going,” Thomas said in the prepared release.
LAW SCHOOLS PRICING THEMSELVES OUT OF BUSINESS
If anyone knows about change, and specifically, making law school more affordable for all populations, it’s Brooklyn Law School’s dean, Nicholas Allard. After freezing tuition in 2013, Allard and the school announced in April of last year tuition would be reduced by 15 percent. Tuition dropped from $53,850 to $45,780. Brooklyn is one of a few schools to reduce tuition in the past couple years.
But that’s not all Brooklyn Law School is doing. The school also offers housing that Allard describes as “very nice” and “substantially below market rate.” Allard adds that the school has put an emphasis on providing one-on-one help for graduates to attain jobs after graduation. “You don’t want people to be shut out because they can’t pay the price tag,” Allard explains. “We want the price to come down. In addition we want value and that our students learn what they need to be a good lawyer and have a meaningful job when they graduate.”
Interestingly, Allard doesn’t see the two-year degree as the most ideal way to reduce tuition. Instead, Allard thinks law schools should get rid of merit-based scholarships. “I believe law schools generally are pricing themselves out of business and tuition must come down,” Allard says. “And tuitions are artificially inflated by the merit-scholars arms race, which is a race to nowhere. They wear these fake sticker prices and have merits. The money does not go where it’s needed. The merit-scholarship is also inequitable. A few students get them and the rest pay artificially high sticker prices to make up for it.”
“THE DOG THAT DIDN’T BARK”
Furthering his crusade against the current bar exam, Allard believes the survey missed a huge datapoint. “One of the famous stories in Sherlock Holmes is the dog that didn’t bark,” Allard begins. “The dog that didn’t’ bark in the middle of the night was a key clue to solving a mystery. They (Kaplan) didn’t ask about the cost of testing and crammed courses for bar prep. That’s the dog that didn’t bark in this survey.”
Allard believes the added pressure, cost and time spent preparing for and taking the bar is contributing to graduates feeling “confined” to higher paying jobs, which (in turn) is perpetuating the justice gap of under-served populations unable to afford legal services.
“There are many contributing factors, but one of the biggest is the price you pay after graduation,” Allard explains. “Waiting for test results and waiting for licenses. It’s like you cross the finish line and then someone gives you a sack of cement to carry. That added cost is contributing to the justice gap by preventing people from taking jobs they otherwise would.”
A STRONG PRESSURE TO CHANGE
Allard believes breaking up the certification into sections, testing throughout law school is one solution to preparing competent and certified lawyers. Another solution Allard offers is making legal education more practical in general. Regardless, Allard says law schools all around the country are taking notice to the pressures to make legal education more affordable and valuable to everyone. And change, albeit slow, is on the way.
“Law schools everywhere feel pressure to cut quality and spending and increase the price. In the private sector, where I come from, that’s the formula for a business train wreck,” Allard says. “We have to overhaul the whole business model and break out of the merit-scholarship arms race. We need to put more money in need-based scholarships. No one would have wished the Great Recession on anybody, including the legal profession. But what it has done is force people who are reluctant to look at change to embrace change. To look at if the business model can be improved. The fact that this survey is out there and people responded is another indicator that there is a need to look at cost without destroying the value.”