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.