THE BLOG
03/13/2013 04:28 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

When Solutions Only Look Like Solutions

Dean Dan Rodriguez has written a letter to his students at Northwestern University Law School to announce a class size reduction, a tuition increase, and a commitment to increase scholarships and to cover LRAP costs.

The letter is a mostly honest assessment of the challenges faced by Northwestern, its peers, and law schools generally. There are too few jobs; attending law school costs a lot of money; and the legal economy is undergoing (and has undergone) a significant shift. Rodriguez is not the first dean to go on the record about these issues and he will not be the last. Without a doubt, acknowledgement is an early step for reform.

The far bigger challenge is having legal education leaders provide solutions that actually combat the problems they rarely struggle to articulate. Here I find that sincere philosophical differences stand between the people who want to see a reimagination of legal education and the people who believe that the scope of necessary change is relatively narrow. Both groups acknowledge the need to reform, but disagree on what reform looks like. In my opinion, the differences largely stem from how far away one thinks legal education is from a reasonable price and from a reasonable balance between students and jobs.

In the rest of this post, I respond to three of the solutions adopted by Northwestern to combat the problems facing law students, recent graduates, and the legal profession. However, Dean Rodriguez's letter could have been written by any number of law school deans, faculty members, or trustees. The applicant market has forced schools across the country to cut class sizes, increase tuition discounts, and stop unrestrained budget expansion. Credit is due when schools move in the right direction, like when a school cuts enrollment because there aren't enough jobs or because the school refuses to admit students who are unlikely to ever pass the bar. However, the motivation is never solely noble; among other vanity measures, schools want to maintain their U.S. News ranking. It's important that decisions like Northwestern's receive in-depth analysis and be challenged beyond their glossy exterior.

Class Size

Legal education is in an interesting place when an elite law school like Northwestern reduces class size due to a weak entry-level hiring market that cannot absorb all of its graduates. Each school needs to do its part to reduce size, and it appears that Northwestern's contribution will be about 12-15% over a three year period. Compared to the incoming class of 2013 (274 students, enrolled in 2010), Northwestern's incoming class of 2016 (enrolling in 2013) will be roughly 235-240 students. Northwestern has publicly set a baseline for class size reductions for schools of its kind. I'd say it amounts to a challenge to schools that do not have job outcomes like Northwestern to justify why they do not follow suit. For schools like Northwestern and its peers, they need to continue to assess whether current cuts suffice.

Of course, if a school reduces the number of people it charges, it needs to cut expenses and/or increase revenue.

A "Moderate" Tuition Hike

Rodriguez takes a page out of the higher education administrator's playbook when he talks passively about tuition increases, as if they just happen to schools. According to this play, schools simultaneously deserve credit for restraint and sympathy for having to raise tuition. One current Northwestern student sarcastically thanked Rodriguez for "tell[ing] us how lucky we are that the school is taking more money from us, but [] not as much as they could be taking." That the increase is in line with expected inflation and better than peers is supposed to be a consolation. Students do not see it that way.

Increase
Tuition$%CPIx inflation
2004$35,896
2005$38,372$2,4766.90%3.40%2.03
2006$40,680$2,3086.00%2.50%2.41
2007$42,942$2,2625.60%2.80%1.99
2008$45,332$2,3905.60%3.80%1.46
2009$47,472$2,1404.70%-0.40%-11.8
2010$49,714$2,2424.70%1.60%2.95
2011$51,920$2,2064.40%2.90%1.53
2012$53,168$1,2482.40%2.10%1.14
2013$54,763$1,5953.00%3%1
Total$18,86752.56%20.80%2.53
Northwestern Tuition & Fees, Last 10 Years

My criticism is not directed at Rodriguez alone. The law school dean has less responsibility than one might expect and a variety of factors go into the nominal tuition rate—how many factors and to what extent each factor impacts the final number depends on the school. Nevertheless, somebody or a group of somebodies at Northwestern is responsible for a price point that continues to trend in the wrong direction. The appropriate next step for Northwestern stakeholders is to wonder why a law school representative—at any school, law or otherwise—would find it distinctive to talk about an increase of "only" three percent. Rodriguez's letter stipulates that Northwestern is part of the solution, but its supposedly-progressive policies showcase what's truly wrong these days in higher education.

But fear not, to temper the tuition hike even more, the school can increase its financial aid awards.

Tuition Discounts

Financial aid sounds completely benevolent. After all, it's "aid" that helps all but the very wealthy afford to attend school. The term refers to student loans (at exorbitant rates), as well as merit and need-based scholarships. The latter category is an expenditure like faculty salaries or janitorial services. While scholarship money sometimes comes from limited purpose endowments, they're usually tuition cross subsidies. That is, a scholarship for one student comes from the tuition revenue of all others. Need-based scholarships are scarce, so a huge chunk of scholarship expenditures comes from the tuition revenue from the students least likely to succeed. These students subsidize the students with the best incoming LSAT scores and GPAs (i.e. those most likely to succeed).

This translates to something far less noble than a solution to the soaring cost of a Northwestern education. Like almost every other law school, the school has chosen to expand its budget to buy credentials to continue its participation in the U.S. News charade. Who pays for this? The incoming 1Ls who pay more than the average price paid, current 1Ls, current 2Ls, and the alumni that Northwestern plans to obtain "external funding" from to recoup lost (and apparently necessary) revenue from class size reductions. At a certain point, if it hasn't already happened, alumni will simply refuse to cover the difference and wonder why the budget must grow to provide a sound legal education. As mentioned previously, students already wonder.

⋅ ⋅ ⋅

Digging into Northwestern's three solutions, even if presented as non-exhaustive, takes some polish off of Rodriguez's letter. These are conscious spending decisions dressed up as solutions to various aspects of the legal education crisis that's hitting even students at elite law schools. Unfortunately, continuous boasting from law schools about how they're ahead of the curve on reform, when their solutions can only hope to make tiny dents into the legal education crisis, proves how far we are from affordable legal education that provides entry into the legal profession.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.