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The destruction of American public legal education

[ 23 ] March 6, 2017 |

I’ve been working on an article about the history of tuition at American law schools. Spoiler: it went up by roughly 1100% in constant dollars over a 55-year span, but then started going down on an average effective per student basis about five years ago, because increased transparency required law schools to slash sticker prices radically for about half their matriculants.  The upshot is that today roughly half of all law students are paying sticker tuition (which is higher than ever) or fairly close to it, while the other half are getting bigly discounts off sticker.  Further spoliation: this cross-subsidization flows on average from poorer students to richer ones, and from ethnic minorities to white students, for reasons you can probably guess.

Anyway, the big surprise to me in looking at all this closely was how public law school resident tuition didn’t go up much at all relative to either private law school tuition, or increases in family income ,at least through the mid-1980s.  Since then it’s gone completely crazy though.

The other stat that really jumped out at me was how robustly median family income grew in the 1950s and 1960s, and how amazingly flat it’s been for the past 40+ years.  (Note that family income is about 20% higher than household income, since the census defines a family as two or more people related by blood or marriage or adoption living together, while a household can be one person, or two or more unrelated people domiciled together.) . Here’s a small section:

To be as affordable today as public law school tuition was in 2006, relative to what family income was at that time, a family has to make $105,000.

To be as affordable today as public law school tuition was in 1996, relative to what family income was at that time, a family has to make $189,000.

To be as affordable today as public law school tuition was in 1986, relative to what family income was at that time, a family has make $342,000.

To be as affordable today as public law school tuition was in 1974, relative to what family income was at that time, a family  has make $453,000.

To be as affordable today as public law school tuition was in 1956, relative to what family income was at that time, a family has to make $547,000.

Several things are evident from these numbers. First, the enormous run-up in private law school tuition between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s was to some extent ameliorated by the rapid rise in the income of American families during this time. In the eighteen years between 1956 and 1974, real median family income grew by nearly 50%, from $42,675 to $63,552 in 2017 dollars.

Indeed, these same increases in family income mostly offset the rise in public law school tuition, which remained roughly as affordable as it had been two decades earlier, in relative terms.  Yet over the next four decades, law school tuition continued to rise at a breakneck pace, even as family income growth slowed to a crawl. By 2015, median family income was just 12.6% higher than it had been 41 years earlier, while private law school tuition had increased by 297% in constant dollars since then, and public law school resident tuition had risen by a mind-boggling 690%, even after adjusting for inflation.

Thus, the devastating consequences of rapidly increasing tuition and flat income growth are seen in their starkest form when considering the effect of these dual trends on the affordability of public legal education in particular.   When compared to family income, public law schools now cost considerably more than private law schools did as recently as the 1980s, let alone in the decades before then.  Resident tuition at public law schools is now higher, in real terms, than the tuition charged by Harvard and Yale law schools when a large percentage of today’s law professors attended the latter institutions.

Note: Median family income was $70,697 in 2015.




Comments (23)

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  1. bobbyhurley says:

    Shamelessness has a lot to do with it. Apparently we need to be in dire straits again before a lessening can occur.

  2. rlc says:

    Coincidentally, we were in St. Denis today, avoiding a cold rain, looking on, I suppose, the “box” representing the remains of you know who (portrait above). It’s not entirely out of the purview of this blog to observe that the surrounding banlieu is not frightening. At least for the 1/2 mile out we strolled (bundled up, under umbrellas) in various directions. And too, in the very nice restaurant, quite some ways from the royalist pilgrim pathways, in which we were notably the only bleached sorts. Curry seems to travel well, world wide.

  3. Srsly Dad Y says:

    Paul, law review article or journalism?

  4. NewishLawyer says:

    When did it become common for people to attend out of state public universities? Was it always common? Was it more common for grad school especially in desirable areas?

    It seems to me that the purpose of public education especially at the professional level is or should be to educate for the local population. Meaning the state in which the public law school is located. But we live in an area where some public universities are among the best in the nation. Why stay in Michigan if you go to their law school? And some public universities become desirable by being located in nice and exciting locations. Why should Hastings limit applications to Californians?

    This is especially true as public financing for higher education has collapsed for a variety of reasons.

    • randy khan says:

      There’s always been a subset of public colleges and universities that were attractive to out of state students as an alternative to private universities. It used to include UCLA, Cal Berkeley, Virginia, North Carolina, and some others (maybe Rutgers, although the joke at RU in the day was that that was because some people thought it was an Ivy League school); basically the top state schools in good state university systems. Today, a few other factors make people choose out-of-state public universities. One is that some people want to go to schools with good football or basketball teams. (This is at least partly true, although I think in many cases it’s more that they know the names of those schools from seeing them on TV.) Penn State used to get some of that in the Paterno era. The second is that high school students are more and more focused on finding schools that have academic programs that they want. I know a lot of families that have looked at out-of-state public universities specifically because they had programs that weren’t available locally. Third, in some states (and particularly in some parts of some states), it can be harder to get into the top tier state universities as an in-state student than it is to get into good state universities elsewhere as an out of state student. For instance, it’s really hard for kids in northern Virginia to get into UVA, Virginia Tech, and William & Mary, so they often look elsewhere rather than applying to Washington & Lee or James Madison.

    • My admittedly anecdotal experience at the University of Wisconsin (not as law student) was that the out of state students helped subsidize the university as a whole, and helped open the minds and hearts of the resident tuition payers to the greater world outside of the midwest. In return received an excellent education, often still as good or better as a more expensive private education in their own states. There also was a liberal/leftist component but that only applied the specific case of Madison.

  5. Vance Maverick says:

    To be as affordable today as public law school tuition was in 1996, relative to what family income was at that time, a family has to make $189,000.

    For me the dangling modifier is a source of genuine uncertainty in interpreting these statements. Do you mean: to afford public law school as easily today as the median family did in 1996, a family must make 189K?

  6. Warren Terra says:

    Have you compared this increase in law school tuition, parsed for public versus private, to undergraduate tuition, or tuition for other well-known graduate or professional degrees?

    It seems like it would be worth doing, and it’s certainly my highly anecdotal impression that you’d see some of the same pattern you report for law schools. My own state-school alma mater had very reasonable in-state undergraduate tuition for a long time that started rocketing up (roughly 3-fold, in inflation-adjusted dollars) since circa 1990.

    (I realize it’s a potentially obnoxious suggestion as if done from scratch it would multiply your research load several times over, but maybe there are published studies you can examine.)

    • Bloix says:

      I suspect that this is true for MBA and MPH degrees, based on personal experience.

    • Unemployed_Northeastern says:

      I recall in the 2011 New York Times article “Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!” it was mentioned that between 1989 and 2009, undergrad tuition increased by an average of 71% while law school tuition increased by an average of 317%.

  7. Is the portrait Gainsborough? His work tells you more how the English aristocracy wanted to be seen than what they were actually like: ruthless and capable bastards. The women ran the stately homes they built for themselves, a nearly full-time management job.

  8. PaulB says:

    On a site that is monolithically left wing on political matters, the Mormon Church would not rank high for praise if it were thought of at all. When it comes to keeping costs down for education, however, Brigham Young should receive a shout out not only for its law school but for its undergraduate program as well. The law school tuition at 12K for LDS students/24K for others (do they still call us gentiles?) deserves recognition as well as praise. My understanding is that the price differential is set by the Church covering half the operating costs out of its general fund from tithes.

    It would be interesting to analyze their cost structure to see how they offer a quality program at such a low cost.

  9. e.a.foster says:

    who would want to be a lawyer????? Doesn’t the U.S.A. have enough of them. It must be one of the most law suit filing country in the world.

    O.K. its meant to keep the other half out of getting ahead. its a closed club and all those free trade agreements well they aren’t that free and they kept lawyers and doctors out of it. So they continue to make a lot of money. working class need not apply. IF your daddy or mommy was/is a lawyer than you get to be a lawyer, all others need not apply.

  10. RafaFan says:

    just wanted to thank Paul for all the work he’s done on law schools

    Paul, thank you, you’ve been a beacon of hope to me personally in a world of insanity

    seriously Paul, thank you!

    (state law school grad class of 09, had incredible difficulty finding work as a lawyer and am out of the profession, outraged that in-state tuition at my alma mater has nearly doubled since I matriculated in 06 and that the employment statistics they fed me at the time were obviously misleading…though to be honest, am sure I was looking to be misled and still would have attended due to optimism bias, I am a special snowflake after all lol…thankfully tuition was still comparatively cheap when I went through and thankfully they’ve stopped publishing employment statistics on their site at least)

  11. ajay says:

    How does that compare to increases in cost for other similar qualifications?

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