Should We Bail Out Law Schools?
“Too big to fail.”
That phrase sure entered the public lexicon in 2008. As financials were poised to fall like dominos, we learned just how interconnected we really are. Suddenly, “moral hazard” and “bailout” became more than oblique terms. They were the opposite poles of a teeter totter, where a shift in weight or velocity could catapult the board off its axis.
Like the pre-meltdown housing market, law schools are considered a bubble, where rising prices, decreasing demand, and an inflated debt burden threaten to collapse the current (and comfortable) order. So how can law schools correct their course before watching their peers (or even themselves) get wiped off the education map?
In a recent column in The Boston Globe, Paula Monopoli, a professor of law at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, offers some solutions. Instead of looking to the general public to do the bailing, she asks law schools themselves to start scaling. Question is, is that prescription enough?
According to Monopoli, American law schools were once revered as the “cash cows of higher education,” with “large lectures and no expensive laboratories.” As a result, law schools proliferated, buoyed by increasing enrollments and tuitions.
But eventually, the party ends, and the bill collector arrives. That process accelerated once Lehman Brothers fell, exposing law school’s fading base:
“In just the last few years, we’ve become the Classics Department — too many faculty and too few students. The sharp downturn in law school applications and enrollments — down almost one-third since 2010 — has resulted in a corresponding decrease in the tuition revenues that make up the bulk of law school budgets. Law schools that are part of larger universities have been forced to go hat in hand to the central campus, asking to be relieved of their obligation to contribute financially to university operations.”
Law schools, which were once considered professional schools, could revert back to their roots, away from being governed and subsidized by a larger university. However, as Monopoli notes, law schools have evolved into “intellectual centers,” making them interdependent of their universities. As a result, Monopoli prescribes developing stronger ties to other programs rather than drifting out untethered and undersupplied:
“[Being different] wasn’t much of a problem when our surpluses represented subsidies to those other schools, but now the power balance has shifted. We’ve got to respond to the new normal by leaving our silos in larger numbers to forge relationships with scholars and administrators outside the law school. To demonstrate our value and to prove that we fit into the core mission of the university, we need to move toward them in ways that we have historically resisted.”
To remedy this incongruence, Monopoli first suggests more rigorous scholarship that requires greater peer review and enhances the overall knowledge base. Second, she argues that law schools should require instructors to have additional training beyond JDs to match the academic rigor of instructors at other schools. Finally, Monopoli believes that law faculty should fund their research from “government agencies and private agencies,” no different from other departments. In other words, they need to prove their value by raking in the research dollars.
Alas, Monopoli’s suggestions might yield pennies on the debt dollar, the proverbial band-aid on the gunshot wound. Shoddy research and generic academic credentials aren’t choking law schools – high costs and low returns are doing that. And going for research dollars simply swaps one cost center for another without addressing the underlying issues.
That said, it is nice to see one academic wrestling with the need for reform. Unfortunately, these cosmetic recommendations fail to put any real skin in the game.
Source: The Boston Globe