Annual Meeting

Task force on legal-ed financing mulls causes of rising tuition at its first-ever public hearing


At its first public hearing, the ABA’s new Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education spent much of its time trying to determine exactly what is leading to increases in law school tuition and debilitating debt loads being carried by so many law students.

The task force, chaired by former Detroit mayor and onetime ABA President Dennis Archer, met over a day-and-a-half Saturday and Sunday during the ABA’s Annual Meeting in Boston. Its aim is to examine the cost of legal education for students and to explore student lending and how law schools are being financed. Beginning with the public hearing, the task force is delving into how law schools use merit scholarships, tuition discounts and need-based financial aid.

Witnesses sought to frame core issues and problems, each from their own perspectives. And task force members pushed each of them to back up their statements with data or anything besides anecdotes.

Kyle McEntee, executive director of the nonprofit Law School Transparency, has long been evaluating available law school data, and has come to the conclusion that law schools are in the midst of a structural crisis. He asked the task force to seek congressional action to stop what he considers the biggest problem: readily available student loans.

“Schools have a blank check for basically bringing in as many people as they can and charging them as much as they can,” McEntee said.

In McEntee’s view, the task force ought to urge Congress to enact meaningful student-loan reform. “This task force should go hat in hand to Congress and say the legal education system is broken and it’s propped up by student loans,” he said.

That reform, McEntee added, should include five things: the elimination of GradPLUS loans; the reintroduction of bankruptcy protections for student loan recipients; a capping of private interest rates; requiring schools to co-sign private loans; and forbidding the consolidation of private loans with direct federal loans.

Under questioning by members of the task force, McEntee acknowledged that his proposals would lead to a significant disruption of the current law school model and lead to a period where low-income individuals would have even fewer opportunities to attend law school. But eventually, McEntee asserted, turning off the student loan “spigot” will drive down the cost of law school and make it more affordable for anyone who wants to be a lawyer.

Task force members were interested in McEntee’s perspective but appeared skeptical of his approach.

Recognizing a dearth of data on the actual cost to deliver legal education, task force member Heather Jarvis, a student loan adviser at askheatherjarvis.com, said she isn’t convinced that student loans are a major factor in tuition increases. Specifically addressing McEntee’s concern over the availability of loans, Jarvis observed that law school tuition was on the rise well before the availability of the GradPLUS program.

Several task force members expressed concern over increasing law school tuition and skyrocketing debt, and specifically the impact that that has not only on an individual’s ability to attend law school, but ultimately on the ability of law graduates to serve moderate- to low-income communities.

The relationship between debt and diversity in the profession weighed on Erica D. Robinson’s mind.

“If we’re really concerned about being representative of the communities we serve, we have to be concerned about that moving forward,” said Robinson, an associate of Gregory, Doyle, Calhoun & Rogers in Marietta, Georgia.

Bucky Askew, the ABA’s former consultant to the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, accepted an invitation to testify before the task force about his observations and concerns.

“So much of the debate going on today is emotional and so much is based on inaccurate information,” Askew said. “A lot of what’s particularly on the blogs is uninformed and not based on data.”

Among the cost drivers Askew identified were decreases in state support of public law schools; a overall lowering of student/faculty ratios; and the resulting increase in the number of tenure-track and adjunct faculty.

Askew didn’t have an answer to what law schools should do, or how they should change. But, he said, “I think many law schools are on an unsustainable path.” Failing to address cost issues will continue to drive would-be lawyers away and will exacerbate access-to-justice gaps, he said.

“In terms of access to justice, there will be a terrible problem if we don’t produce lawyers who will be able to serve communities in need,” he said. “I would say we’re not over-lawyered here, we’re under-lawyered.”

Also urging reforms to the current law school model was Nicholas Allard, dean at Brooklyn Law School, which plans to reduce its tuition by 15 percent.

To Allard, law schools are overly focused on U.S. News & World Report rankings.

“No one minds rankings, beauty contests,” he said. “It’s not anti-ranking per se. But I think we can all agree that the current ranking system is not transparent, not timely, not credible, not accurate.”

Allard argued that figures are dated and don’t take into account many of the jobs held by a large number of graduates of his institution: solo practitioners, public service lawyers and government lawyers. “If you’re Perry Mason; if you’re Atticus Finch, you don’t count,” he said. “It’s preposterous.”

Allard proposes there be more open discussion and criticism of rankings. He also suggests law schools cut tuition, shifting ballooning scholarship budgets to tuition reductions so there’s a “scholarship to everybody.”

The task force plans to hold hearings again at the ABA’s Midyear Meeting in Houston in February. In the meantime, task force members will be collecting data. Transcripts and materials from the initial public hearing will be made available on the Web, according to Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education.

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