Editorial: Law school right to reduce costs


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The University of Iowa College of Law has proposed a dramatic cut in tuition in an effort to boost sagging enrollment numbers and bring the costs of law school in line with the new postgraduation realities facing law students.

Under the law school’s plan, out-of-state tuition would be cut by about $8,000 per year from $47,252 to $39,500. In-state tuition would rise slightly, while tuition would fall substantially for both residents and nonresidents seeking advanced law degrees.

The proposed reductions come in response to lagging enrollment numbers that have plagued many of the nation’s law schools since the last economic recession. Since 2010, incoming classes at the UI College of Law have shrunk by 24 percent. Nationwide, law-school enrollment is down 38 percent over the same period.

This fall, the law school admitted only 422 students, down 20 percent from last year. Applications have also fallen steeply.

The law school’s decision to lower tuition is a good step toward restoring those enrollment numbers. For too long, law-school tuition nationwide has been independent of the laws of supply and demand. By lowering tuition, the school will make the cost of legal education better reflect the postgraduation prospects of law students.

Currently, the value of a law degree is the subject of much debate. A study from earlier this year conducted by researchers at Harvard Law School and the Rutgers Business School found that “given current tuition levels, the median and even 25th percentile annual earnings premiums justify enrollment.”

“For most law-school graduates,” the study found, “the net present value of a law degree typically exceeds its cost by hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

But many have pointed out flaws in the study’s findings. Critics argue that a few top earners skew statistics about the earning power of a law degree and that the economic situation for average law-school graduates is considerably less rosy.

Since 2009, the number of unemployed or underemployed law-school graduates has risen, the median starting income for those who find jobs has fallen as well. According the American Bar Association, only 56.2 percent of law graduates were employed full-time in legal professions last year, though that number is likely depressed by the large number of law-school graduates who do not practice law upon graduation.

Regardless of how well or how poorly law-school investments pay off, it’s clear that law school is a significantly riskier plan today than it has been in the past. Much of this has to do with the demand for lawyers being traditionally cyclical and our being at a low point in that cycle. It’s unsurprising, then, that demand for a legal education is as low as it is.

We applaud the UI College of Law for taking steps to bring the economics of law school back down to earth and generate new demand by lowering costs. Other plans to increase demand currently in place in the law school — several new degrees and expanded academic programs — will also help, but there can be no substitute for tuition reductions.

We encourage the Board of Regents to approve the tuition reductions when the regents vote on next year’s tuition rates in December.

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