Law Schools

GAO Puts Blame on US News Rankings for High Law School Tuition

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Updated: Law school tuition has been rising since 1994, reaching as much as $50,000 per year when combined with fees at law schools such as Yale and the University of California at Hastings.

But don’t blame the ABA. A new report (PDF) by the Government Accountability Office says accreditation requirements by the ABA appear to play a minor role in the rising cost of law school tuition.

Instead the report says the key reasons for higher costs are competition for higher rankings and “the move to a more hands-on, resource-intensive approach to legal education,” according to Inside Higher Ed and TaxProf Blog.

Law school officials told the GAO that schools are competing to increase their U.S. News and World Report rankings. Schools may pay higher salaries to attract the best professors, and offer diverse courses to attract the best students. The competition also affects cost because rankings are partly affected by per-student expenditures, student-faculty ratio, and library resources.

The report summarized the average annual increase in tuition and fees from the 1995 academic year to the 2007 academic year. In-state tuition at public schools rose by an annual average of 7.2 percent over that time period, out-of-state tuition rose by an annual average of 4.8 percent, and private tuition rose by an annual average of 3.8 percent.

The median tuition and fees for the 2007-2008 school year, in 2009 dollars, was $14,461 for in-state students at public universities, $27,383 for out-of-state students at public universities, and $33,042 at private universities.

Meanwhile, the average debt for graduates of private law schools has risen from around $75,000 in 2001-02 to $91,506 in 2007-08. In the same time period, the average debt for graduates of public law schools rose from around $50,000 to $71,436. The figures were adjusted to 2007 dollars.

TaxProf Blog recently reported on plans by the University of California at Hastings to increase tuition and fees to $50,310 for nonresidents in the next academic year. TaxProf blog listed tuition and fees listed on websites for other top law schools. All charged more than $43,000. Yale topped the list with charges of $50,140, followed by Columbia and Northwestern, both charging more than $49,000.

UC Hastings cited state budget cuts for its decision to increase costs. The GAO report cited decreases in state funding as a contributor to higher tuition costs.

ABA President Carolyn Lamm said in a statement that the report rightly recognizes that accreditation standards “play only a limited role in increasing cost and are not barriers to diversity.” The impact of law school rankings, however, may need to be re-examined, she said.

Lamm noted the report found that tuition and fees at law schools, and the debt load taken on by students, compare favorably with costs and debt loads for students attending medical, dental and veterinary schools.

“The ABA is committed to ensuring that the cost of attending law school does not become an increasingly insurmountable barrier for many individuals,” Lamm said. “We are mindful of the importance of making legal education as accessible to as broad and diverse a community of students as possible. In that respect, the ABA urges Congress and the administration to lift the cap on federal loans to finance law and other professional schools so that all students with talent and desire can attend law school—not only those of economic means.”

Updated on Oct. 28 to include comments from ABA President Carolyn Lamm.

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